A war of words has broken out between two well-known artists over issues of intellectual property, artistic freedom, and censorship.
Brussels-based South African artist Kendell Geers fired the opening salvo on Monday, publishing an open letter on Amateur d’art, the art blog of the French newspaper Le Monde, criticizing French-Algerian artist Kader Attia for his ongoing lawsuit against Universal Music France, which Attia alleges sponsored a music video that plagiarized one of Attia’s most famous works. Geers says Attia’s suit is stifling creative expression. In response, Attia said Geers is hungry for attention.
In his suit filed in France, Attia alleges that Universal Music France plagiarized his artwork Ghost (2007) in the music video for “Putain d’époque,” a collaboration by the French rappers Dosseh and Nekfeu. An installation piece, Ghost features rows of women who appear to be kneeling in prayer wearing chadors made of aluminum foil. When the piece is viewed head-on, the chadors are revealed to be empty. The work is often discussed as addressing women’s roles in contemporary Middle Eastern society and the stereotypes and misconceptions that come with those perceived roles. In Dosseh and Nekfeu’s black-and-white video, directed by Nathalie Canguilhem, the two rappers and other performers stand in rows dressed in half-length silver metallic emergency blankets that, like chadors, also cover their mouths. At one point the performers are shown prostrate.
Geers’s open letter, published in English and titled “NOW IS THE WINTER OF OUR DISCONTENT !”, quotes a range of sources, from Voltaire and Guy Debord to Compte Lautréamont and Paul Gauguin. He writes, “If I were you, I would take it as a huge compliment that young French artists have decided to cut your work up into their online video. It is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Plagiarism is not theft and in the context of Dosseh and Nekfeu, I would be flattered if I were you.” (In his open letter, Geers makes some plagiarism charges of his own, citing four examples of Attia’s works that he sees as bearing close similarities to his own, earlier pieces.)
In a statement emailed to ARTnews, Attia defended his suit, pointing out that he is not fighting the two musicians but rather Universal Music, which he holds responsible for allegedly copying his work. “As artists, we have to defend ourselves against unauthorized commercial uses of our artworks,” Attia said. “We are constantly plagiarized by the music industry, or in advertisement, or fashion… Nobody has asked for my permission to reproduce the artwork Ghost in this video.”
Attia continued, “Today all these reactions, including Universal’s, aim at scaring me. They are not used to an artist complaining about his work being plagiarized, above all facing big companies like Universal. The value of an artwork is above all intimate, symbolic, personal. Seeing it plagiarized like this makes an artist suffer, until he decides to stand up and say no to this exploitation. I won’t be scared off by nasty comments.”
In his statement to ARTnews, Attia added, “Regarding Kendell Geers, I am appalled to see he had to resort to such low blows to draw attention to him. I won’t comment any further. Artists should stand up together and present a united front to big companies that plagiarize their work.”
Citing his previous open letters in support of artists like Richard Prince, Jeff Koons, Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman, and Attia, Geers told ARTnews in an email, “I believe it very important today, in an age when politicians like Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen are rising up with a political discourse that is a direct threat to our freedom of expression, that every self respecting artist stand tall in opposition to every form of censorship. Today, more than ever, I think it important that Freedom of Expression be protected above all else, especially by artists. . . . If we are to engage in such battles today, it should be against an art system in which the power of profit is abusive and artists are boxed in to rankings based on manipulated markets.”
The music video, which Dosseh uploaded to YouTube on November 21 (on Facebook he claimed it got over 2 million views in four days), was flagged after the streaming service received claims of plagiarism. The original version is no longer on YouTube, but a silent version is accessible here.