Over the weekend, eagle-eyed TikTok and Instagram users noticed similarities between several paintings on display at the Guggenheim Bilbao and photographs taken by a queer black artist, raising concerns of plagiarism.
The paintings are by Basque artist Gala Knörr and depict various views of the black cowboy. They look like images from a stop motion movie. In one, her back faces the viewer, her gaze directed to a serene pastoral setting. In the next, he looks back.
In its press materials, the museum writes that Knörr “revisits the history of the American West by bringing to life figures who may have played prominent roles in their day but have been forgotten in American popular culture. “. With the cowboy paintings, the museum continues, she “reviews through the image of young African-American woman Brianna Noble on horseback, which she found among photographs of the protests that erupted in the United States in part of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement following the murder of George Floyd.
Online critics have countered that the footage is taken directly from the short film Blue by Brooklyn-based multidisciplinary artist Dayday. The film stars Ezekiel Mitchell, a young black cowboy recounting his entry into bull riding. Throughout, speakers weave his personal story into the history of the Black West. In his first few minutes, he stares at the green landscape ahead of him before noticing the camera. The Guggenheim materials for Knörr’s work did not explicitly reference Blue.
Art consultant and curator Alexis Hyde was among the first to address the controversy online. On TikTok, Hyde highlighted Instagram users’ attempts to bring the alleged breach to the attention of Knörr and the museum.
“This white female artist is trying to speak about erased black history as she actively erases black history,” Hyde said on TikTok. She then said that TikTok had deleted the video, saying it was “bullying”, although her claims were echoed by user Bona Bones, whose post about Knörr and Dayday’s works received. more than 90,000 likes.
Knörr’s New York gallery, Pablo’s Birthday, acknowledged the controversy on Instagram, writing: “As an artistic, collective and individual space, we have taken the time to get most of the facts and think about how which the gallery can do better as an art world entity to promote mutual respect and foster the narrative of equity. Second, we want to apologize to [Dayday] and recognize the work they have created.
Knörr and Dayday did not respond to a request for comment.
This week, the Guggenheim, in collaboration with the curators of the exhibition, Knörr and Dayday came to a resolution: Blue will be exhibited with an artist statement alongside Knörr’s paintings, “marking Knörr’s visible source of inspiration”, said a museum spokesperson ART news.
“By concretely linking the works together, we can initiate a reflection on the double erasure of the history of cowboys in the Basque Country and of African-American cowboys in the United States,” they added.
Tangible works of art, such as paintings, drawings, and sculptures, are protected by copyright law. But whatever the medium, it’s often a confusing path between inspiration, appropriation and plagiarism, with no judge superior to opinion, unless the case is particularly egregious. The past decade has seen high-profile artists wrestle with accusations of copyright infringement, which should inspire further examination of the issue.
Richard Prince, who has a long practice of appropriation, was prosecuted in 2009 for having reproduced images of Patrick Cariouthe photography book of 2000 yes Rasta and use them in a series of collages entitled “Canal Zone”. Prince lost the original lawsuit, but won On appeal. Prince is again facing litigation over a 2014 series consisting of enlarged and printed screenshots of other people’s Instagram posts annotated by himself. He invoked fair use, the legal defense that allows the use of certain works protected by copyright in the name of freedom of expression.
Meanwhile, the infamous Maurizio Cattelan Actor The artwork – the banana taped to a wall that sent the Art Basel Miami Beach fair into a frenzy in 2019 – is making headlines again after an American artist alleged that Cattelan plagiarized his work. Last week, a federal court in Miami denied Cattelan’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit against him.
There are several important variables for an appropriation case – whether the new work makes money and how it affects the market for the original, for example – but most decisions are based on transformation. The defense was first raised by one of the earliest appropriation artists, Robert Rauschenberg, and was raised more recently during litigation over an Andy Warhol portrait of pop star Prince. The case involving Warhol’s work is expected to be heard by the US Supreme Court soon.
As Richard Prince illustrated through his court victories, the doctrine of fair use is vulnerable to determined will and will likely continue to evolve with successive tests in court.
The Guggenheim resolution is remarkable because it circumvents the win-lose framework of the legal system and instead cedes a platform to the aggrieved party. “The [Guggenheim] thank you dayday and Gala Knörr for the opportunity to collaborate on a restorative solution,” the statement concludes.