Student plagiarizes African artist and exhibits at Milan Photo Festival

In 2014, curator Simon Njami hired Ethiopian artist photographer Aïda Muluneh to interpret Hell for an exhibition at Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art entitled The Divine Comedy: paradise, purgatory and hell revisited by contemporary African artists. Muluneh’s ’99 series’ featured a model on a light gray mottled background, with her body and face covered in white paint and her hands drenched in red.

Listen: In the above episode of the PhotoShelter podcast Slightly blurred vision, Sarah Jacobs and Allen Murabayashi discuss the plagiarism of Aïda Muluneh’s work.

In arguably the most iconic image, the model places her left hand against her cheek and her right hand on her chest, while three other red hands extend from outside the frame to grip the model at various points. The model’s head tilts slightly and her gaze extends into the distance. The image is contrasting, vibrant and visually striking. In her artist statement, Muluneh describes her Inferno as the “gray existence” of her country’s past, but also of our individual pain.

On Twitter, the African Women in Photography account noticed an overly similar image created by Italian photography student Andrea Sacchetti, who was part of a group show at the 2021 Milan Photo Festival.

The Istituto Italiano Fotografia commissioned students to interpret Dante’s Hell, and Sacchetti unmistakably plagiarized Muluneh without attribution or permission, producing a series of diptychs using a painted white model with red hands, photographed against a gray background . Sacchetti’s images lack both the emotional intensity and technical excellence (i.e. lower contrast, less skillfully stylized hand position, blank stare) of Muluneh’s original. .

After hundreds of retweets, the Festival released a statement on its Instagram account [which has since been deleted], recognizing the “identical” image. However, they further specify that “there was no intention to plagiarize against such a prestigious author and we know that the young photographer has already apologized to the author”.

The history of art and photography is filled with accusations of plagiarism. Recently, the late Ren Hang has been accused of plagiarizing the work of Ryan McGinley, Guy Bourdin, Robert Farber and Robert Mapplethorpe. Iranian photographer Solmaz Daryani accused German photographer Maximillian Mann of copying his work from Lake Urmia. But while specific images in these cases have similar poses or scenes, none of the images share a level of identity like the Sacchetti plagiarism of Muluneh.

In the United States, copyright law does not allow creators to protect a concept. And photographers have had limited success in using copyright in visual plagiarism cases. But that doesn’t mean individuals shouldn’t push back on blatant cases.

In all art forms, imitation provides a methodology for learning. Jazz students often transcribe Charlie Parker’s solos, learning not only the notes, but also the phrasing and subtle changes in timing that elevate Parker’s playing. And in photography, it’s very common for students to reproduce photos they admire to deconstruct lighting patterns, lens selection, etc.

But it is the height of privilege for a student who plagiarizes against a famous African artist to have the continued support of a major European photo festival. The continuous exhibition of Sacchetti’s work gives tacit approval to others to commit the same offense without consequence.

At a time in history when there is growing awareness of the uncredited appropriation by black creators, this result is a sad commentary on the attitude of the Milan Photo Festival towards plagiarism and more specifically against plagiarism. moral rights of an African artist.

Muluneh, the founder of Addis Foto Fest, shared her thoughts via the organization’s Twitter account, including:

I take this very personally, not just for myself, but imagine for other photographers and artists that no one knows, or who are trying to get started, who face similar challenges… It’s always a conversation that needs to go on. Just because there was a post shared and a few messages sent, that’s not the end of the conversation.


About the Author: Allen Murabayashi is the president and co-founder of PhotoShelter, which regularly publishes resources for photographers. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone. This article was also published here.

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