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Exhibit of French artist accused of plagiarising Jean-Michel Basquiat is cancelled

Chris J Ratcliffe, AFP | A man photographs himself in front of a painting titled 'King Zulu' by Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Barbican in London on September 20, 2017.

The Sakura art gallery in Paris has cancelled an upcoming exhibit by local artist Guillaume Verda, who has been accused of copying Jean-Michel Basquiat. The controversy has once again raised the question: when does inspiration become plagiarism?

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Artistic originality was clearly lacking. Some have even qualified Verda’s work as plagiarism. One thing is certain: the artist’s style bears a striking resemblance to Basquiat’s. But does that make it a tribute or a cheap knock-off?

As controversy over Verda’s BRUT 2019 exhibition grew this week, the Sakura Gallery, in Paris’s central 4th arrondissement (district), decided to cancel the show, citing “public safety” concerns.

The artist – who was born in the suburbs of Paris and is a graduate of the prestigious Boulle art school – has since scrubbed his website’s archives and set his Instagram account to private while he waits for the storm to blow over.

“He received threats, a lot of hatred and threats. There were many messages and emails. It was an avalanche on non-constructive criticism. It’s been completely blown out of proportion,” Jean-Baptiste Simon, director of the Sakura Gallery, told FRANCE 24. “He’s not trying to hide, because he stands by his work. But he doesn’t want all the pressure of social media.”

Basquiat who?

The controversy first erupted on February 19, when French photographer and filmmaker Alex Loembe pointed out the obvious similarities between Verda and Basquiat’s work in a succession of posts on Twitter under the handle @OneBananaADay.

“Do you want to see Mr. Verda’s work?” he asked. “Does it remind you of something? Jean-Michel Basquiat by any chance?”

Loembe accused Verda of misrepresenting his work as original art by failing to name Basquiat as an influence on his website.

“There’s not a single mention of Basquiat’s enormous influence on [Verda’s] ‘work’, which, if I may, allows us to qualify it as a bad copy,” he wrote.

Instead, Verda’s website describes his BRUT 2019 exhibition as simply “traditional expressionist masks made of paperboard and wood, representing the ancient spirits that still inhabit our modern world. A piece of the Urban voodoo myth”.

In a scathing post shared by thousands of users on social media, Loembe wrote: “Hooray for cultural appropriation and exotic neologisms.”

The Sakura Gallery has defended Verda, dismissing accusations he has plagiarised Basquiat. “A lot of artists work like that, they draw inspiration from another artist or movement,” Simon said.

To underline his point, Simon pointed out that Verda had published several images on Instagram under hashtags clearly referencing Basquiat as an influence. But upon closer examination, many of Verda’s posts made no mention of the famous New York street artist, instead referencing #AndyWarhol #AfricanArt #streetart or #neoexpressionism.

Appropriation art

It is not the first time the Sakura Gallery has come under fire for showcasing artists who have been accused of appropriating other people’s work. It represents Benjamin Spark and Ideealizse, both of whom have faced criticism for ripping off popular comic book characters.

By exhibiting Verda’s work, the gallery had hoped to attract buyers who like Basquiat’s style, but can’t afford an original. The question remains, however, whether Verda’s creations fall within the reach of copyright infringement, or whether they are part of a sub-genre of artwork inspired by Basquiat.

Art dealers will surely have the final word on the subject. At the time of publication, Artestar, an New York-based agency that represents Basquiat’s worldwide licensing, did not respond to requests for comment.

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