It is ironic that I write this blog on the evening that HBO is debuting the made for television movie about Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman who, while being treated for cervical cancer, had her cells stolen to create the HeLa cell lines. While most cells eventually stop reproducing, Henrietta’s cells were what the medical field called an, “immortalized cell line”, in which her cells would reproduce indefinitely. Henrietta Lacks cells have been used in the research for cancer, AIDS, gene mapping, instrumental in the polio vaccination and to this day her cells are used in almost every molecular –biology lab. Henrietta Lacks cells have generated billions of dollars, yet the descendants of Henrietta Lacks have not fared as well financially. As is often the case when people steal from others.
Sadly, this is nothing new, since the beginning of time people have made a fortune stealing from minorities. Land, people, resources, music, ideas, culture, art, food, style…the list is practically endless.
Such is the case with the article by Dismas Sanfiorenzo that came out in OkayPlayer featuring a Chicago “artist” and “urban planner” that completed a “large mural of Michelle Obama that is located a few blocks from the former First Lady’s childhood home.” The mural is of Michelle Obama in green and gold royal African attire. A photo that I recall seeing floating around Facebook, so I surprised when reading the article that this “artist” was representing the work as if it was something that he conceptualized, when in fact, the artist is actually a talented young, Ethiopian female artist named Gelila Lila Mesfin who can be found on Instagram.
The “artist” that took Mesfin’s work stated in the dnainfo article, by Andrea V. Watson and Tanveer Ali, “I wanted to present her [Michelle Obama] as what I think she is, so she’s clothed as an Egyptian queen. I thought that was appropriate.”
Really? You were sitting at home and thought, “I want to depict Michelle Obama as an Egyptian queen?” Really?
Something in me finds that very hard to believe. What I see is someone that saw an opportunity to steal a young Black woman’s work and profit from it never believing that anyone would notice. But we did. We noticed because we recognized the picture and we recognized it because a Black woman that many of us admire was depicted as an African Queen. Images that we do not often see so the picture resonated with us, connected with us especially in a world where Black women are rarely if ever, presented as royalty.
The “artist” goes on to say in a statement on his GoFund Me page, “Our nonprofit urban planning projects often include paintings inspired by “found” images. We were blown away by a wonderful image we stumbled on and only found out after the fact who the source of the inspiration was. We in no way meant to impinge on anyone’s creativity.” After the fact? In this day and age of technology, you found out after the fact who the artist was? Okay, wait. Let’s play Law and Order detectives for a minute. I thought the “artist” said he wanted to present Michelle Obama as an Egyptian queen as if it was his idea? Now the statement is, “It was inspired by a found image.” A found image. Kind of how Christopher Columbus found America.
But wait the statements get better. In another statement the “artist” goes on to say, “We recognized the importance and power of this piece to Chicago youth, particularly at this time in history.” Really? So, to inspire Chicago youth and what I can easily assume will be African American youth, this “artist” inspires them by stealing the artwork of a Black artist. How does that work? What message does that send to Chicago youth? Steal, and you will get ahead? If you cannot create something on your own just take it from a Black person? It is okay to lie to a community about conceptualizing a mural, because who is really going to notice this artwork from a Black artist that is not well known in the art world?
This is a huge problem I see when artists enter spaces and want to do creative placemaking. Newsflash:it is not creative placemaking when you steal another artist’s work. Just because you steal artwork and give it a “hip” and “trendy” name does not make it creative placemaking. It is creative placetaking, plagiarism, and thievery.
What this so-called “urban planner” doesn’t understand is he didn’t just steal artwork from Gelila. In my opinion, he didn’t care about taking the image because he has no connection to the image. He doesn’t understand what it feels like as a Black woman to see a Black First Lady. How many Black women stood a little bit taller during Michelle Obama’s eight years of service because in the history of the White House no one had ever held that position that looked like us. How we admired her because she didn’t lie and steal to get to the top but worked diligently to graduate from Princeton and Harvard. He doesn’t understand the power we felt as Black women when we watched Michelle Obama navigate the Oval Office with dignity and class even in the face of being ridiculed. He doesn’t understand how we felt her silent pain as she was called ugly and a monkey because of her features. So, he doesn’t understand that seeing Michelle Obama in traditional royal African attire connected her and us to a history that has been STOLEN through slavery or maybe I should call it creative placemaking.
He never had to understand those things so for him it was okay to just steal the image. He probably never understood how Black women have had to fight for everything and his “creative placemaking” stole art from a young Black artist that is working to make a name for herself. Black women have always been on the auction block. Our stories, our bodies, our art, even our very cells are stolen with no regard, no thought, no concern. You didn’t just steal from Gelila. You stole from every Black woman in this world that is attempting to simply be great any way we know how. There is no justification for what you did. You are in a long line of men and women that have profited off the backs of those that just wanted to be! That’s all we ever wanted. To use our skills, talents, and gifts to simply be great! And for people like you, that is just too much. For people like you, it didn’t matter that you stole someone’s piece of sunshine. It never mattered in your “creative placemaking.” Because it was never about the power of the image it was about you and how you could profit off the back of someone else.
Featured Photo: Gelila Mesfin
Article GIF : Giphy
More information about Gelila Mesfin can be found here.