Norfolk artist Rashidi Barrett admits to copying others
NORFOLK, Jan 29, 2013 (The Virginian-Pilot - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Earlier this month, an artist attended the opening of a show in Harrisonburg featuring Norfolk artist Rashidi Barrett and spied a familiar image.
The artist left and searched the Internet. He found a nearly identical copy in the work of Brazilian artist Matheus Lopes Castro. The surrealistic image depicted a palm-sized child in a swing held aloft by a person's hand.
The next day, on Jan. 12, the artist informed Paul Somers, gallery manager for the Artful Dodger, a downtown Harrisonburg lounge/gallery, of his discovery. "Well, it was really, really perplexing," Somers said in an interview with The Pilot. "He was a friend of mine. I bought his stuff. Other people I knew bought his stuff. It took me a while to process it."
Somers said he had never doubted that Barrett's work was original because Barrett had been legitimized with a show last summer at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art in Virginia Beach.
Barrett, 38, was staying at Somers' home that weekend. "I didn't confront him then," Somers said. Instead, Somers spent the next few days comparing some of Barrett's work with other art he found online. Somers said he has identified about a dozen matches with other artists' works.
Barrett's show was his third at Artful Dodger since around 2011, said Somers, who estimated that he had sold about seven pieces by Barrett in that venue.
Of those sold pieces, Somers said, he has found four that resemble other artists' work.
Another Harrisonburg gallery, Larkin Arts, exhibited Barrett this month, too. That show was taken down after fraudulent works were discovered, gallery Director Lynda Bostrom said in an email. "We are still in discussion about how to handle this, as details are not complete," she wrote.
Reached Sunday at his Ghent apartment, Barrett said he was "really, really sorry" about the copied art. "I've let a lot of people down."
Barrett said he plans to pay Somers for what he thinks is the value of the four copied works sold in Harrisonburg -- $1,700.
Barrett posted an apology over the weekend on his website, RashidiBarrett.com, but he shut down the site early Sunday morning, he said. "I took it down because I was getting harassing emails."
Barrett also posted an apology on Facebook this weekend. It read: "My acts are indefensible. All of the artists involved have been contacted in recent days with regards to the news. I can't apologize enough to those I've affected. I was in the wrong and am doing everything I can to make right by all of the mistakes I've done. Again, I am truly sorry."
A Harrisonburg blog, OldSouthHigh.com, broke the story this past Friday, listing six victimized artists. On Monday, Somers verified nine artists whose works were copied.
Both Barrett and Somers contacted the copied artists, some of whose reactions were forgiving.
In an email to Somers, Andrew Archer, from New Zealand, wrote that the incident is "very disappointing for me and unfortunately for Rashidi also."
The Brazilian artist Castro wrote in an email to Barrett, "It's obvious that you made a mistake and it's laudable that you recognize it. I don't wanna be the reason for you to quit your career."
Barrett said he started making art about two years ago and is self-taught. He estimated he has sold "about 35" artworks in the Hampton Roads area since then. His typical price has been $80 to $400, but he once sold a piece for $1,000, he said.
Of those works, he said he believed three were copies, but as many as half of those pieces used aspects of other artists' works.
To pick up elements of another artist's work can be considered "appropriation," which is a legitimate approach in the contemporary art world, if the original artist is acknowledged. Barrett's art was embraced by regional practitioners and followers of art in the Lowbrow, or pop surrealism, style. Lowbrow is an underground art movement that brings in imagery from graphic novels, punk music, tattoo and other subcultures. Barrett's MOCA display included a painting of Marilyn Monroe with her red lipstick seeming to gush from her mouth like blood. The image of Monroe was copied, too, from a work by Brazilian artist Ruben LP.
Alison Byrne, director of exhibitions and education at MOCA, said she and the museum's curator visited Barrett in his studio a year ago. "We were not only impressed with the work but with the way he talked about it." They never imagined he had copied other artists.
Byrne has worked for museums for a decade and has never encountered blatant copying. At the museum level, at least, it's rare, she said.
"MOCA makes every effort to promote best practices and standards for artists and museums," Executive Director Debi Gray said. "When questions of authenticity have arisen in the past, MOCA has made every effort to be honest and upfront."
In the world of Lowbrow, image theft is more prominent, perhaps because that art scene engages extensively on the Internet.
Jason Levesque, a nationally known Lowbrow artist who lives in Norfolk, said he's discovered his work plastered on club posters and on T-shirts sold in Mexico. In December, while strolling the Art Basel international art fair in Miami, Levesque came face-to-face with an image copied from a photograph he had posted online. Once informed, the gallery took down the work.
Levesque is acquainted with Barrett, who emailed him for advice about how to handle the recent scandal.
"I feel like he got in deep very quick and was under a tremendous amount of pressure to turn out work," said Levesque, who encouraged Barrett to come clean with a candid apology.
"I did copy some pieces," Barrett admitted to The Pilot.
He said a Brooklyn, N.Y., gallery dealer made him feel bad about his art last year. As a result, he lost his confidence. But Barrett had shows scheduled and commissions in place. To loosen up, "a friend of mine suggested I try to work in the style of people I really like." So he did, then sold some work of that sort.
"I'm not thinking about fraudulent. I'm just thinking about paying my light bill," Barrett said, noting that art and music provided his income.
Barrett also is popular regionally as DJ Cornbread and has "sampled" music by other artists into his own.
"That's the same philosophy I've had about painting," Barrett said.
However, he acknowledged Monday that copying artwork "is not the same."
"I'm done with visual and music," Barrett said, because of the scandal. "My character's been destroyed."
He said he will move out of town and remake his life, in another field.
"It's incredibly embarrassing," Barrett said. "I can't say enough that I'm so sorry."
Teresa Annas, 757-446-2485, firstname.lastname@example.org
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