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After 'Stolen' Art Used In Michelle Obama Mural, Artist Aims To Make Amends

Artist Gelila Mesfin's digital drawing of Michelle Obama as an Egyptian queen posted on her Instagram account in November (left) and artist Chris Devins' mural in South Shore completed Friday (right)

SOUTH SHORE — A Chicago artist who raised money to put up a colorful mural of Michelle Obama near her South Side elementary school faced swift and furious backlash online over the weekend for "stealing" the artwork of an Ethiopian artist. Now, the two artists say they're working toward "resolving the issue." 

The mural project, spearheaded by artist Chris Devins of Hyde Park, was completed Friday on the southeast corner of 74th Street and Chappel Avenue in South Shore. That's two blocks from the former first lady's childhood home at 7436 S. Euclid Ave. and across the street from Bouchet Elementary, which she attended when it was known as Bryn Mawr School.

The colorful mural portrays the former first lady as an Egyptian queen — an image created by Ethiopian-born artist Gelila Mesfin, who posted a photo of the work to her Instagram account, @Thick_East_African_Girl, in November.

After news of the mural surfaced Friday night, Mesfin criticized Devins for not reaching out to her, saying "This is so disheartening, and so disrespectful on so many levels."

"How can you just steal someone's artwork ... someone's hard work and claim it like it's yours? ... How can you go on record and say you designed this?" she posted on Instagram. "I wouldn't mind if he had given me credit or said he took the design from another artist, but saying you designed it is just wrong!"

Devins launched a GoFundMe campaign in November to create the mural on the outside of Bouchet school, but the mural was put on an apartment building instead.

"I wanted to present her as what I think she is, so she's clothed as an Egyptian queen. I thought that was appropriate," Devins told DNAinfo Friday, before the online backlash. 

Mesfin took to social media to call out Devins for taking credit for her work, and he fired back in an update on GoFundMe, where he said the photo used in Mesfin's piece was "stolen" from photographer Collier Schorr, whose portrait of Obama was used in The New York Times magazine. 

"Um. People . If you want to go there, the so-called "original" is "stolen" from photographer Collier Schorr," Devins wrote. "The broader conversation is one about authorship in the re-mix culture we live in and this hate coming from people who listen to music that is entirely sampled from other peoples original music. All this hate on a broader effort at community improvement." 

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"The purpose of this mural is to give today's children someone they can literally look up to and to celebrate Mrs. Obama's life and accomplishments during the last 8 years as First Lady of the United States," the original GoFundMe stated.

The image originally included with the GoFundMe, which raised nearly $12,000, resembled a black-and- white photograph. The finished mural, completed over five days, shows Obama dressed in colorful clothing, including a green and gold headdress and green earrings.

In emails to DNAinfo Saturday, Devins apologized for the "misunderstanding" and said that his mural was inspired by Mesfin's work, which he first saw in a thumbnail version on Pinterest.

“Our nonprofit Urban Planning Projects often include paintings inspired by found images," he wrote in a message similar to an update he posted on the GoFundMe page. "We were blown away by a wonderful image we stumbled on, and only found out after the fact who the source of our inspiration was. We in no way meant to [infringe] on anyone’s creativity.”

On Twitter Saturday morning, Devins thanked Mesfin, who now lives in Rhode Island, and said he only found out her name beyond her online handle after news of the mural appeared online. He said he was "not trying to take credit" for her work.

"It was sloppy," he said.

In an email, he said he has reached out to Mesfin, "who has been offered a licensing fee" and  "we did not intend to claim authorship, only inspiration.”

Saturday evening, Mesfin posted a statement on Instagram encouraging people to stay positive.

"I have been in contact with Chris Devins in hopes of resolving this issue in an applicable and professional manner, and from my Instagram family, I only ask that everyone keep this positive towards him," she wrote. "I preach love, not anger or hate of any kind."


Devins said Chicago Public Schools rejected putting the mural on Bouchet because CPS does not allow them on schools. But he didn't mind the location on a building across the street.

"I wanted to keep my original promise so students can see right now across from the playground," he said. "It gives them a sense of pride."

Eiran Feldman, CEO of First InSite Realty, owns the building, along with 300 other properties on the South Side. He also owns a building at 81st and Ingleside that features a huge poster of "queen of gospel" Mahalia Jackson and a building at 4301 S. King Drive that has a mural of Nat King Cole.