Michelle Obama Mural Sparks Controversy. Look Closer.


One artist claims that another artist stole her portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama.

Gelila Mesfin’s digital portrait, “Forever Queen,” which depicts Michelle wearing an Egyptian headdress, was uploaded by the artist to her Instagram account in November 2016, reports The Washington Post. On April 21, an almost identical version of Mesfin’s portrait appeared as a mural on Chicago building.

The muralist, Chris Devins, did not credit Mesfin, explaining that he found her drawing on Pinterest and was unable to track her down. He furthermore defended using her imagery, calling it a “remix” of a piece of art in the way that a DJ remixes songs.

When Mesfin was alerted to Devins’ mural, she was at first flattered that another artist had turned her image into a piece of public art. But that was before she learned that Devins had reportedly profited from it, judging by the fact he raised nearly $12,000 on a GoFundMe page. In addition, his comments to a local media outlet implied that the artwork was his idea: “I wanted to present her as what I think she is, so she’s clothed as an Egyptian queen,” he told DNAinfo.

Mesfin objected to the use of her work without permission in an Instagram post. She also complained to The Post: “I was very disheartened when he did that. There’s a common code among all artists that you can get inspired by someone’s work but you have to pay homage and you have to give credit for it.”

With the help of an attorney, she and Devins are negotiating a resolution to the dispute.

Devins, in his own defense, said never intended to take credit for Mesfin’s creation. He also noted that Mesfin’s portrait was not original, either, being based on portrait published in The New York Times by photographer Collier Schorr. Mesfin, however, credited Schorr’s work on her Instagram post.

Devins said he has been painting murals around Chicago for more than two years, depicting that city’s historically-significant black figures, including Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole, and that he makes little to no money from the work.

“This is a free service that I do as a benefit for Chicago youth as a counter to the ‘if it bleeds it leads’ portrayal of Chicago’s South Side,” he told The Post. He further alleges that all the GoFundMe money that was raised for the mural of Michelle went into the cost of painting it.

“I understand why he did it,” Mesfin concludes. “At the same time, I was just surprised. It would have been fine if he had just said that he got it from me.”

Sources: The Washington Post, DNAinfo / Photo credit: Pixabay, GoFundMe via DNAinfo