I am a big fan of art, paintings, music, dance, theater and the list goes on. While in Abidjan last week I ended up at an open mic night in a small café outside of the city. An open mic night is essentially a musical session where musicians, vocalists, from within the crowd go to the stage and perform and show their talent. I was impressed by the level of talent and as it turns out, one of the singers was a competitor in the “The Voice”, in South Africa.
This had me thinking about the exposure that African artists have been getting around the world, which has been quite fantastic to see. From rappers to painters and everything in between, African artists are making their presence known and exhibiting their talent and stories all across the world. While all of this is great, one thing comes to mind. Do they own their creations? Your automatic answer would be, of course, they created the art so it’s theirs. The truth of the matter is that it is a bit more complex. Rules related to intellectual property when it comes to the art world is seldom discussed. Most importantly artists are not particularly aware of the steps to take to own and protect their creations, it’s complicated and most importantly it is additional costs that they may not have in their budget, and lawyers do not come cheap.
This past week Gelila Mesfin, an Ethiopian artist based in New York, was in an interesting situation. She, who had been putting her creations online had garnered quite a bit of media attention as her art featured “Africanized” portrayals of famous black women ranging from first lady Michelle Obama to singer Lauryn Hill. A few days ago, an artist in Chicago posted a mural of former first lady Michelle Obama near her childhood home as part of a move of creating positive images in South Side of Chicago. Long and behold, the mural he posted was a copy of the image by Gelila, who had neither been contacted nor credited for her creation. In fact, the mural artist claimed to have created the work. With internet and social media, this matter was brought before her attention and that of the media which ended up with the two artists negotiating and working towards an amicable resolution.
Although this is the most recent example, last month Sarah Diouf, a Senegalese designer, had called out an Yves Saint Laurent, a French fashion house, for having stolen her bag design and exhibited it during their winter/fall collection. In the situation of the Senegales and Ethiopian artists, the claim is most likely that the new creations served as mere “inspirations” while in fact replicating their exact work.
At the heart of this ordeal lays the important question I had asked earlier, do our artists own their art? The answer is still not clear. Perhaps what we should be asking, how can our artists own their art and protect it? What are the steps they can take that would cost nothing, or very little, in their home or host countries. As our art garners worldwide attention, it also means that we are opening our creations to be misappropriated and worse, stolen. Although not so artsy, owning our creations is an important step in an art world that seems to value African art but not African artists.