Black women’s art has been stolen for centuries. Why should muralist Chris Devins be an exception?
Editor’s Note: An earlier report of this article identified Devins as white. In Twitter posts, Devins said his dad is Irish and his mom is “100% Black”
Lets be real. White folks have been stealing, appropriating, or culture vulturing — plundering, as Ta-Nehisi Coates would put it — black people’s shit for centuries. American slavery, segregation, second-class citizenship, all the other disreputable offshoots of these — what is this complex matrix of oppression if not the taking of resources and creativity from one group to give to, inflate the ego of, another.
It’s, in part, why our country continues to maintain a life-draining racial wealth gap and why intergenerational poverty keeps boot-to-neck on the standard of existence of black lives.
It’s why Boston black artists, in 1969, criticized the rise and success of such artists as The Beatles and CREAM who, according to these artists, were black music wrapped in white packaging paper.
It’s why or may help to explain the actions of Chicago artist Chris Devins, who is currently under intense fire for a mural he commissioned himself to do in Chi-town.
Hours ago, a report broke that Devins, who produced a mural featuring an Egyptian likeness of ex-FLOTUS Michelle Obama’s face for Chicago area residents — Chappel Avenue and 74th street, to be exact — had, in fact, stolen that exact image from, you guessed it, a black artist named Gelila Lila Mesfin.
Not only did he use it, but after launching a GoFundMe campaign for the funds to do the work, where he exceeded his initial goal of raising over $9,000 (he ended up raising over eleven thousand dollars) didn’t have the decency and integrity to reach out to Mesfin for her permission and an offer on the table for credit and compensation.
As you can imagine, Mesfin, alerted by friends and fans on social media of what happened, was pissed. She let it be known just how pissed she was in a lengthy Instagram post, which has collected over two thousand likes and over five hundred comments, the majority of them showing outpourings of support and outrage.
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… this is so disheartening and so disrespectful on so many levels… like this man seriously created a gofundme page, raised money and did this… it's one thing to share or even profit from someone's work but to claim it as yours is just wrong! Thank you to those who DM and messaged me to let me know what was going on @dnainfochi you guys should take this article down because this man stole this. 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! The man is a teacher for God's sake and said he was doing this to create positivity for his students and community… but he didn't think that stealing a young girl's artwork and making a profit out of it does more damage than good.
And, get this. Devin’s only retort, which he published on Twitter, was that his actions regarding the inspiration he received from this “found image” do not veer away from the norm of the organization he works for, followed by a hollow and too-late thank you. Conveniently, he neglected to mention how this is, in any way, shape, or form, a good or appropriate thing or justify his behavior toward this black artist.
Listen, as Okayplayer noted, there is no disputing the “foul play” of what Devins did. There isn’t. There’s no room for serving up the claim, again, that black people are overreacting and that, despite the obvious disrespect to the labor of yet another black artist, the silver lining that black folks should focus on is how much visibility and chatter Mesfin’s work will gain for her, as an individual, and the black community, having been co-opted by a white proprietor.
Nah, I don’t buy that, for a second. Never did.
As far as I know, in the long and tragic history of race relations in America, white passing visibility, thus far, has not overturned the vicious and debilitating racial stereotypes that are the rationale and foundation for America’s despicable campaign to cycle its black population through poverty, illiteracy, poor health, the prison industrial complex, homelessness, joblessness, and death.
Visibility, in most cases, uplifts — economically and psychologically — one person, and, by virtue of this, one group, alone, at the expense of the other — that of the said white artist.
In this instance, that’s Chris Devins.
Besides, you can have all the visibility in the unfree world. Sadly, within an economic system as dreadful and unsuitable for human happiness as capitalism, one that measures growth, influence, and success by dollar signs, visibility, alone, means absolutely zilch if it is not expressed in the “value”, or a monetary amount, of an artist’s commodity.