As the Obama’s were finally leaving office in 2016, one Instagram artist created a painting of Michelle Obama. Gelila Mesfin’s digital portrait, “Forever Queen,” featuring Michelle Obama in an Egyptian headdress became popular amongst snowflakes on twitter. Then, another artist painted it on the side of a school building.
The second artist in question says that he was inspired by Mesfin’s work, but since he saw it on tumblr and couldn’t track her down, he decided to just paint the painting anyway.
The muralist, Chris Devins, insists he changed the portrait enough to make it his own… or at least like a remix.
The problem was that Devins has also been profiting from the portrait, raising more than $12,000 on GoFundMe.
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.”