White artist blasted online for copying black photographer’s work

Left: Still image off Blue, directed by Dayday (Screenshot Valentina Di Liscia/Hyperallergic via Vimeo); right: Gala Knörr, “Young Cowboy” (2022) (used with permission from the Guggenheim Museum)

A painting currently on display at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao shows a black figure in a cowboy hat looking over his shoulder against an abstract background of field and sky. The stark composition, painted by Basque artist Gala Knörr, is nearly identical to an image captured by Brooklyn-based photographer and filmmaker Dayday – a still from her 2022 short film Blue.

The film, directed by Dayday and shot in North Carolina, is a portrait of Ezekiel Mitchell, one of the top professional bull riders in the world. Through visually stunning footage and personal accounts from Mitchell, nicknamed “Blue,” the film chronicles his start in rodeo and his plans to become the first black rider to win a world title in nearly four decades. The film’s hazy light and soft color palette, which expertly captures the crispness of a white shirt and the red earth of the rodeo floor, is starkly different from the bright hues of Knörr’s work, but the similarities are otherwise uncanny.

The similarities were picked up by social media users, who denounced Knörr’s painting Young Cowboy (2022) and other canvases by the artist at the Guggenheim’s Basque artist program The exhibition made no reference to the day in its titles or promotional materials. Criticism was further amplified on TikTok, where videos by art consultant and curator Alexis Hyde and user Bona Bones called Knörr’s paintings a “blatant rip-off” of the day’s work, a self-proclaimed black and queer artist. Dayday’s credentials are impressive, including work on an ABC series about the exhibition soul of a nationa design concept for the New York Timesand branding for Alicia Keys master class Series.

A text on the Guggenheim website describes “Young Cowboy” as Knörr’s attempt to revise the archetypal narrative of the American West by pointing to its roots in “colonialism and in a mixture of races, cultures and provenances”. According to the text not mentioning day or tag Bluethe painting was “inspired by the image of young African American woman Brianna Noble on horseback,” a photo from a Black Lives Matter protest in Oakland that went viral in 2020.

Knörr’s painting reflects not only the form but also the substance of the daytime film. In a scene in Blue, complains Dr. University of Houston professor Demetrius W. Pearson describes the way rodeo culture fails to recognize black individuals. “It is unfortunate that the legacy of African American cowboys and their contributions to the annals of American history has not only been blatantly omitted, but often embellished,” he says.

A spokesman for the Guggenheim Bilbao told Hyperallergic that a solution had been reached: Dayday, Knörr and the exhibition’s curators have agreed to show the work alongside an artist statement “marking the visible source of inspiration for Knörr.”

“By tangibly tying the works together, we can begin to reflect on the dual erasure of Basque cowboys and African American cowboys in the United States from history,” the spokesperson said. Dayday and Knorr did not respond to Hyperallergic’s requests for comment.

Knörr’s New York gallery, Pablo’s Birthday, also posted a statement on her Instagram page today, apologizing and inviting users to follow her work.

“We believe in giving credit where credit is due and want to foster a space for collaboration of all capacities,” the gallery said. “As for Gala, we want to acknowledge the paths that have taken her to get where she is and call on cultural institutions such as galleries and museums, as well as artists themselves, to reflect and recognize their practices and the impact they are having, how their privileges have brought them to where they are.”

In an August 2021 Instagram post, Galerie positioned Knörr’s work at the intersection of “identities and technology,” noting her use of media, popular culture, and digital imagery in a sometimes tongue-in-cheek manner. Other works by the artist also testify to her interest in found material, such as a photograph of a celebrity, similar to that of well-known artists such as Richard Prince. But the recent controversy exposes the limits of appropriation in art and how the strategy beloved by postmodernists can lead to the obfuscation of artists from historically underrepresented groups.

Rebecca Polanzke, a New York-based gallery staffer who took to social media, opined that the incident “feeds into the pervasive exploitation of black art by white savior figures.”

“Gala Knörr’s blatant plagiarism doesn’t empower or provide a platform for these artists or their story — especially when it’s so difficult to give proper credit to the original artist,” Polanzke told Hyperallergic.

Polanzke added, “If institutions like the Guggenheim really love how impactful their work is, why not exhibit the original female artist or one of the many figurative Black artists who are establishing themselves in the art world?”

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