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Mural of Michelle Obama as African queen sparks controversy

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While not meeting the same level of scrutiny as an image of former President Barack Obama as an African witch-doctor, a portrayal of Michelle Obama as an African queen is still facing controversy.

…over charges of plagiarism.

Artist Chris Devins finds himself facing a backlash of criticism after painting a mural of the former first lady on a building in the South Side of Chicago — not for portraying her as an Egyptian queen, but for copying the work of another artist.

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The mural is all but identical to a portrait done last year by Gelila Mesfin, an Ethiopian art student in Rhode Island. Mesfin was inspired by a photograph of Obama by Collier Schorr that was featured in the New York Times’ magazine, and she has consistently credited Schorr, according to CNN.

A post shared by G? (@thick_east_african_girl) on

Mesfin was none too pleased, responding to the controversy on Instagram.

“How can you just steal someone’s artwork… someone’s hard work and claim it like it’s yours…” she wrote in an Instagram post.

“How can you go on record and say you designed this… this is so disheartening and so disrespectful on so many levels…” Mesfin added. “It’s one thing to share or even profit from someone’s work but to claim it as yours is just wrong!”

In a follow-up statement, Mesfin said she has been in contact with Devins and hopes to resolve the issue “in an amicable and professional manner.”

“I only ask that everyone keep this positive towards him; I preach love, not anger or hate of any kind,” she said.

Devins, who raised nearly $12,000 in support of the project, told CNN he did nothing wrong.

“I credited Ms. Mesfin for her work immediately,” he said. “I’ve taken the heat and will gladly do so as long as the kids have a mural they can look up to.”

The reaction on social media included the obvious question: “What did [Michelle Obama] accomplish exactly?”

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And while it remains to be seen how forgiving Mesfin may be, social media users were not too kind toward Devins.

Here’s a sampling of responses from Twitter:

Tom Tillison


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