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An Artist Defends His Appropriation of a Fellow Artist’s Work Without Permission

A story of an artist appropriating, without consent, the work of other artists and what happened next.

A screenshot from artnet.com, where David Krippendorff's work was put up for sale. The works have since been taken down.
A screenshot from artnet.com, where David Krippendorff’s work was put up for sale. The works have since been taken down. (screenshot by the author)

At this year’s Berlin Art Fair, work by “The Arabian Street Artists” was on display — replicated and screen printed in gold, without their knowledge or permission. During the summer of 2015, Heba Y. Amin, Caram Kapp, and Don Karl responded to a call from the television series Homeland for “Arabian street artists” to create authentic graffiti for the film set at their Berlin location, meant to depict a Syrian refugee camp on the Lebanese/Syrian border. On her website, Amin, quoting an article in The Washington Post, describes Homeland as “one of the most bigoted shows on television,” and so she and the other artists used the opportunity to “hack” the series.

Amin, Kapp, and Karl created Arabic-writing graffiti with messages that translated to “Homeland is NOT a series,” “Homeland is racist,”and more. Following up on this intervention, they even made a documentary about the hack. As a result, the artists received a great deal of press on sites like CNN, Al Jazeera, BBC, and Slate. In addition, the work was discussed on a number of television programs, including The Late Show With Stephen Colbert and The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon. Amin includes a list of publications on her website. The work eventually reached the notice of Homeland producers, who, in season six, attempted to make a change by hiring a “conscience consultant.” Thus, it came as somewhat of a shock when the artists discovered their work for sale at the Berlin Art Fair.

The Arabian Street Artists' original work, as featured on <em>Homeland</em>, translation: "Homeland is not a series" (image via Heba Amin's website)
The Arabian Street Artists’ original work, as featured on Homeland, translation: “Homeland is not a series” (screenshot from Heba Amin’s website)

The exact images and their title were taken and screen printed in gold, to be put on display by a white male artist — David Krippendorff — and presented by the German gallery Katharina Maria Raab. According to Amin’s website, when the original artists reached out to Krippendorff, he called the works an “homage,” saying he was providing a “platform,” which, as Amin states, “disregard[s] the global attention our hack received.” However, in an email to Hyperallergic, Krippendorff states that he did not know the graffiti in Homeland was the work of practicing artists.

“Had I known that this hack was going to find its way into the art world because one of the three sprayers is actually a practicing artist, I never would have felt compelled to do anything about it artistically,” writes Krippendorff. He further adds, “Unfortunately I was misled by the international press reporting the identity and profession of the hackers as ‘Street Artists’ or ‘Graffiti Artists,’” making a distinction in this case between street or graffiti artists and “practicing” artists. Later, though, in a press release sent to Hyperallergic, Krippendorff contradicts his original statement, saying, “had I known there were artists among the sprayers, I would have done the work anyway.”

When Hyperallergic reached out to Amin for comment, she informed this publication that up to this point, the work had never been for sale, and in addition to the accusation of plagiarism, she also highlights the problematic issue of a white, male European artist using and profiting off the work of artists of color without crediting those artists. On her website, she writes, “We were never asked, never contacted, never considered.”

“This is much more than about plagiarism,” said Amin in an email to Hyperallergic. “It is about cultural entitlement that has been enforced over and over again. I am not interested in waging a war against the artist, but rather question why it didn’t occur to him that this was so problematic.”

Krippendorff, however, has a different focus and claims he “was not exploiting this political protest for financial gain,” adding:

I was not “stealing” anybody’s narrative. Homeland is after all a product of the US entertainment industry, and my celebration of a hack on its expense can also become part of my narrative, since I have been exploring precisely those same issues of cultural identity, displacement, and belonging in Hollywood films for over 20 years. I am being labelled as the “White Male” artist, without taking into account that I grew up in between many cultures and that issues of displacement, cultural and national identity have always been part of my biography and my work. Because of my background and my own feelings of cultural displacement, I have a natural inclination to identify with minorities and groups that suffer discrimination or injustice. Am I supposed to limit my field of empathy and interest? If Identity Politics denies dialogue rather than allows it, then it starts becoming a dangerous problem.

Amin, Karl, and Kapp, responding the Krippendorff’s denial of plagiarism and claims of cultural displacement even as a white man, write, “We collectively find the whole story, as well as Krippendorff’s defensive victimhood and claims to emotional trauma, rather pathetic. If Krippendorff did not understand that he ran the risk of being held accountable for plagiaristic appropriation — on so many levels — we have nothing more to add.”

In a follow-up email to Hyperallergic, I learned from Krippendorff that after the incident, he sought out legal representation, calling the encounter with Amin at the Berlin Art Fair a “very aggressive confrontation,” stating that the request from Heba’s gallery to “take the prints away for further examination” was “really inappropriate and violent,” but he “agreed, always in the hope that our behavior would indicate the desire to come to an amicable solution.”

Krippendorff states that these exchanges were followed by Amin contacting a journalist from the Art Newspaper and issuing a request through a lawyer that he never display the work again.

The Arabian Street Artists’ original work, as featured on Homeland, translation: “There is no Homeland” (screenshot from Heba Amin’s website)

“At this point I had no other choice,” Krippendorff writes, “so I contacted a lawyer who immediately settled the case, and my prints were returned … [Amin] had broken the possibility for a peaceful solution.”

Hyperallergic reached out to Amin for a response, and she, along with Kapp and Karl, state the following in an email:

By addressing Ms. Amin exclusively in his message to you, Krippendorff further reveals his lack of research into the constellation of the Arabian Street Artists. We would like to point out that all three of us are equally offended by his actions and attitude.

The response to your email does not correspond to our memories of how the events at the art fair unfolded. We were surprised that an artist of his assumed stature was not sensitive to the many levels on which his work not only appropriates, but even negates the discussion we initiated with the Homeland hack. 

In essence, the Homeland intervention was a critique of and reaction to the lack of agency accorded to the real-world locations and heterogenous groups of people on the show Homeland. The irony of the prints is that they were mostly copied from our film Homeland Is Not a Series, which very specifically integrated the voice and perspective of a Syrian friend. His inclusion was meant to highlight Homeland’s complete erasure of the Syrian narrative from the series’s supposed Syrian refugee camp. Ultimately, the producers of the show proved more receptive to this critique than Krippendorff, who replicated the very issue we were critiquing in his anonymous, highly-priced “homage.” 

Beyond that, he was reproducing our graffiti from the set, and in some cases, personal trademarks, and selling them without our consent. He took them to the art market, uninterested in backgrounds or history, to sell for his personal gain. What to him is a resource to exploit is to us a world of characters, inside jokes, and meanings that speak to a specific audience. Seeing it printed in gold on fine paper reduces that world into a meaningless commodity, a kitschy souvenir.  

Furthermore, the artists describe a different series of events to the ones Krippendorff lays out in his emails. According to Amin, Kapp, and Karl, the artists discovered the works from a social media post and learned that they were on display at the Katharina Maria Raab Gallery booth at the Berlin Art Fair, just a few booths away from where Amin was displaying her own work with Zilberman Gallery. Amin, Karl, and the Zilberman Gallery manager confronted Katharina Raab, and Krippendorff’s gallery immediately took down the works and called  Krippendorff by telephone. He arrived shortly after, and Amin, Kapp, and Karl write:

The discussion was visibly embarrassing for him, but in no way aggressive from any side. Krippendorff seemed honestly unhappy about our reaction to his work. But what was obvious, even after lengthy explanations, was that he did not see any fault in his actions and was merely unhappy that we didn’t like it. The conversation got to a point where we no longer knew what to tell him to drive home the many problematic layers of his action.

In corroboration with Krippendorff’s story, Amin, Kapp, and Karl confirm that “he offered to state in writing the fact that he would not show or use the work in the future.” However, the artists claim that “He also offered to immediately destroy (cut) the prints on the spot or alternatively give them to us,” while Krippendorff claims it was a request from Amin and her gallery. Amin, Kapp, and Karl state that they took him up on the offer to take the prints and did not contact any journalists, as Krippendorff claims. Five days later, they received an email from Katharina Raab “demanding the works back, claiming they were only handed over for further examination.” The artists agreed to return the prints but also asked for a guarantee, written by a lawyer, that the works would no longer be used.

Hyperallergic reached out to Katherina Maria Raab gallery twice, but the gallery declined to comment, directing our queries to the artist.

Then, on October 16, Amin, Kapp, and Karl state that Zilberman Gallery received a call from Krippendorff’s lawyer, “doubling down on his ownership of the works, claiming no plagiarism was committed and demanding that the prints be returned immediately.” In turn, Krippendorff offered to credit their names in the future. The artists as a result returned the works, and rather than entering a legal battle, decided to publicize the story via Amin’s website.

“Upon doing so,” Amin, Kapp, and Karl state, “we are now threatened with being taken to court by them over claimed copyright infringement for publishing ‘his’ images online without permission.”

In his email to Hyperallergic, Krippendorff writes, “My legal position is strong, as I have not broken any copyright rules. I certainly hope that Heba does not force me to take further legal action on this matter; it is not something I would enjoy doing.”

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