July 28, 2018
Critics on both sides of the Atlantic have praised Mickalene Thomas’ strikingly vivid photographs for her positive representation of black women.
Vogues Rihanna cover photographer accused of cultural appropriation
So when Vogue magazine ran a cover photograph of the pop star Rihanna which bore more than a passing similarity to Thomas’ own style it prompted angry accusations from fans of the African-American artist.
Juergen Teller, the acclaimed German fashion photographer who took the image, has now become the latest artist to face accusations of ‘cultural appropriation’ following claims he copied central elements of Thomas’s trademark style.
The French edition of Vogue published photographs of Rihanna posing against a backdrop of vibrantly contrasting throws and rugs, interspersed with shrubbery, furniture and animal sculptures.
One admirer of Thomas, a stylist and creative director who calls himself Steve Jxseph, wrote: “This is very similar to Mickalene Thomas’ work and Juergen needs to explain what’s going on.”
Vogues Rihanna cover photographer accused of cultural appropriation
Thomas’s New York gallery weighed into the last week, issuing a pointed statement saying that Teller’s images had been “rightly compared” to her work.
The statement appeared to suggest that New Jersey-born Thomas, 47, had fallen victim to the sort of cultural appropriation which sees white artists use the work of black and ethnic minority artists without crediting their central role in its creation, whether in art, music or fashion.
Vogues Rihanna cover photographer accused of cultural appropriation
It said: “Mickalene has earned the right to be recognized and commended for her ground-breaking contributions to contemporary art and visual culture, and for a signature aesthetic that she has been cultivating for decades.
“As Mickalene’s long-time gallery and advocate, we vigorously stand by her in defending the originality of her work.”
Vogues Rihanna cover photographer accused of cultural appropriation
The Lehmann Maupin gallery also stated that Thomas' “prolific body of work has been instrumental in addressing inequality within art history and art institutions through her representation and reclamation of traditional art historical genres and depictions of beauty and desire around the female body, particularly Black women, who have too long been marginalized in our culture.”
It also pointed out that she had “developed an internationally recognized visual language” using photography, collage and painting, suggesting it regarded Teller’s work as a deliberate imitation.
Vogues Rihanna cover photographer accused of cultural appropriation
Britain’s leading black newspaper, The Voice, has also voiced fears that Thomas’s work has been pushed to one side in favour of Teller’s.
It cited one New York Twitter user who wrote: “I know we are in an era where people feel like they can take whatever they want and call it original and theirs, but we should remember that artists like Mickalene have taken great pain to create an aesthetic that is informed by concern, study, history and a love of black women.
“It was once a very unpopular position to take and she took it anyway. We should honor and protect the space she created for herself and black women.”
Vogues Rihanna cover photographer accused of cultural appropriation
Vogue even appeared to acknowledge the similarity between Teller’s images and Thomas’s own work when they posted one of his photographs of Rihanna with the tagline “#MikaleneThomas” on Instagram to promote the magazine’s now controversial December edition.
Teller, who recently exhibited at the Moscow gallery owned by Roman Abramovich’s third wife Dasha, has previously worked with Marc Jacobs, Louis Vuitton, Vivienne Westwood and the musician Björk..
He refused to comment about his photographs of Rihanna.
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