“… imitation an homage or theft will remain endless and left up to the conscience and conscientiousness of artists…”
The age old adage, ‘Imitation is the best form of flattery’ is on one hand reassuring while on the other dismissive, especially when it comes to contemporary fine art. I have shared my concerns on the “copying” of artwork and/or appropriation of specific styles that are so obvious it’s embarrassing. I have also highlighted artists who have been clearly influenced by others, yet are able to develop their own lexis, narrating their distinct identity and skill level. Close to home, a copyright infringement claim was circulated on social media, several days ago, regarding an original artwork entitled “Love Flight” by Mezgebu Tesema. He was my husband Prince Merid Tafesse’s Graduating Advisor at Alle School of Fine Art and Design over 20 years ago. Mezgebu is an accomplished artist and lecturer, well known and respected for his hyper-realistic oversized canvases depicting from rural landscapes and life to urban scapes and culture. Mezgebau brought the issue to the attention of the arts community and the world, thanks to facebook, where he declared his position and posted his painting next to the photograph in question for all to see. The concept and composition were mirror image yet the subtle changes were enough to cause a debate over copying vs. compliment and recognition vs. permission. As a jurist the perfect answer on such legal and ethical issues is always the classic, IT DEPENDS…
Let me first update you on the on the Mezgebu matter before unpacking the issues, giving us even more to consider. Mezgebu has communicated the following resolution on his FB page, “The copyright issue with Willyverse has been amicably resolved with me accepting his apology for not asking permission to do an interpretation of my artwork “love flight” Oil on canvas and I also apologized for misunderstanding his intentions. Thank you all for your support and encouragement throughout.” Well done Mezgebu and Willyverse, both should be commended. Imagine if these were world leaders, what a peaceful world we would be living in, but that’s another story. I was moved by the respect, integrity and ethics expressed by these artists.
The artist manager and jurist in me, however, began analyzing his heartfelt phrases, “accepting apology” and “asking permission to do an interpretation” in particular. Was an apology due and could that open the door for possible litigation, if for instance the Willyverse work sells for millions? Under most laws, an apology is understood as admission of guilt. Does an artist need permission to do an “interpretation” of another artist’s work? It is said, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Should recognition of influence be enough and if so, when and how should an artist make such a declaration? These are important questions that need to be considered in the shaping of Ethiopian laws and the future integration of copyright laws as it pertains to art in Africa. Colonial continental borders are slowly melting, in preparation of future economic interaction and integration and art will be another industry to be considered. How do we shape and create policies that protect and preserve artists’ creativity and its aesthetic, historic and economic value? Naturally this can only be determined on a case by case – artwork by artwork scenario – but basic laws may need to be re-visited as well as international agreements on culture and the arts, in order to prevent verses cure, to share another good old saying. We must view these challenges as opportunities to be part of the change and upgrading of the art industry, lest we go the way of the west, which is filled with more drama than we need in Africa.
Africa is prime for new laws and industries and the convergence across industries is crucial. It is happening on very tinish levels, but its time to up the game. Art is a multi-million dollar industry and Apps, blockchain and overall use of tech, with best practices from established forerunners in art and culture, is the way forward. Mezgabu was not complaining when he posted his position, he was bringing awareness to an important issue which is taken for granted or dealt with silently in the arts community in Ethiopia. The myriad lessons to be learnt here include the artist’s right and responsibility to protect his creations; the ethical duty artists owe each other when there is purposeful and deliberate appropriation of work; and how the matter should best be resolved when dispute arises. Finally, the debate as to whether an imitation is an homage or theft will remain an endless argument and left up to the conscience and conscientiousness of artists; cautioned that after we are long gone, history shall judge your art in unimaginable contexts which shall determine your destiny and position in the far future.
Dr. Desta Meghoo is a Jamaican born
Creative Consultant, Curator and cultural promoter based in Ethiopia since 2005. She also serves as Liaison to the AU for the Ghana based, Diaspora African Forum.