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Feature | Safeguarding art and aesthetic

We live in a time where consent and morality are fleeting, and for the voyeurs of contemporary art a no potentially means maybe

Black British artist Ashton Attzs accused fashion brand Thom Browne of replicating their work, without asking for permission. The shirt in question, produced by Browne’s design team, retails somewhere in the region of £500 and bears a striking resemblance to Attzs’s prize-winning artwork Don’t Stay in Ya Lane [image below].

A spokesperson for the New York-based fashion brand rejected the claim, saying the design was inspired by its own swimwear range and described the similarities as a "pure coincidence".

The spokesperson continued, “The original print doesn’t have swimming lengths... the artwork was done in navy, blue and white. The navy and white are the brand’s standard”.

Attzs took to Instagram to voice their frustrations, "This is a blatant copy of my painting ‘Don’t Stay In Ya Lane’. Absolutely ­disgusted, hurt and fuming that this has happened. Can high-profile fashion houses actually start being original rather than stealing ideas from queer, black young artists?".

Ashton Attzs - Don't Stay in Ya Lane (left) Thom Browne - Swimmer print shirt (right)

Attzs is a Fine Art student at Central Saint Martins, their body of work celebrates the everyday life of the LGBTQ+ community and people of colour. Their painting ‘Don’t Stay in Ya Lane’ is a celebration of queerness, transness and blackness. The piece features animated androgynous swimmers staying afloat as they travel in different directions. The painting is an ode to individuals of marginalised identities who navigate through everyday social injustices and still thrive in life’s deep ends. The likeness is greater than a coincidence, minus a few details such as the swimming lanes, clothing on the bodies and orientations of bodies - the resemblance to Attzs' work is uncanny.

Last year Kendrick Lamar was also accused of appropriating work from British-Liberian artist, Lina Iris Viktor. Viktor told the New York Times Lamar used her work without permission in his music video for All the Stars, a soundtrack from the Marvel blockbuster “Black Panther.” Viktor says she twice denied the video's creators permission to feature the 24-karat gold patterns from her “Constellations” series. In an interview Viktor said, “it’s an ethical issue, because what the whole film purports is that it’s about black empowerment, African excellence — that’s the whole concept of the story. And at the same time they’re stealing from African artists”.

Constellations I - Lina Iris Viktor (left) Still image taken from All the Stars music video - Kendrick Lamar & SZA (right)

According to Viktor's copyright lawyer Nancy Wolff, "style is not protected". So, what type of protection is actually afforded to visual artists by copyright and trademark laws?

There is preferential treatment given to other creative art forms - visual art is not given the same protection as literacy authors or music composers, who fully benefit from protection against theft of their work. This differential treatment needs be reevaluated with one law applying for all art forms.

It is not uncommon for artists to draw on some stylistic elements of other artists and pay homage to those who have inspired them. However, in this respect the water has always been a little murky when it comes down to how much 'style' influences ones work before it rises to a level of appropriation. Ethical integrity is not of high importance to many public figures and creative corporations, who time and time again profit from the work of marginalised artists and designers. And the question of whether the entirety of an artist's work is protected under copyright laws remains largely unresolved.

Words: Mag Ibiam

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