David vs Goliath: South African artist calls out French department store for recognition

Instagram has always been a useful tool for artists to publicise their work. Increasingly it is also seen as an effective tool to discover and expose potential unauthorised use of an artist’s work.

Earlier this month, Nkuli Mlangeni a designer with an South African art and textile collective called The Ninevites posted two images alongside each other on Instagram to show the similarities between her work and the work which served as a backdrop to the showcase of South African designers and their artisanal goods at luxury French department store Le BHV Marais.

Le BHV Marais July 2017

Le BHV Marais is a jewel in the crown of French department stores, it was established in the historic Marais district of Paris in the 1800s and today sells Armani, Gucci and Hermes, among other designer brands. This summer it is showcasing numerous South African designers. Its website describes the showcase as “celebrating the South Africa of today, a worthy player on the international fashion and design stage”. Le BHV Marais has noted that ArtLogic a company managed by Mandla Sibeko and responsible for exclusive art fairs and exhibitions in South Africa (such as FNB Johannesburg Art and Winter Sculpture Fair) was responsible for assisting with research together with This is Cape Town, a marketing company based in Capetown and founded by Julie Hatchuel. We should not forget in all the furore which Mlangeni’s post has caused that, through its showcase, Le BHV Marais is providing a global platform for other South African creatives.

Mlangeni post is striking as there appears little doubt that the colours and graphics in Le BHV Marais’ store look uncomfortably similar to Mlangeni’s work.  Mlangeni stated that her reasons for making the issue public were simply “PR aside and I might never get justice for this but I need to let it out and tell my truth. I invested so much time and money on this project with no……trust fund from daddy or any kind of financial support except for friends helping me out……………It was never about the money all I wanted to do was tell my story/OUR story…….”. A flood of support from her followers and leading South Africans such as Black Coffee the award-winning DJ/Producer, photographer Mohau Modisakeng and business magnate and CNBC Africa presenter Thebe Ikalafeng has pushed this issue into the limelight.

Social media can make us leap to conclusions too quickly without all the facts.  Certain statements made on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook go too far and are potentially libellous and certainly premature. More than 80 million images and videos are shared on Instagram and other social media platforms every day, often un-credited therefore making it almost impossible at times to identify the artist or photographer responsible for the original work. The inspiration for the work displayed in Le BHV Marais may have been entirely unrelated to Mlangeni, the result of separate legitimate due diligence or research from other unidentified sources.

Statement from South African agency – ArtLogic

None of the allegations made have been proven and it is worth reiterating that the South African agencies used by Le BHV Marais are highly reputable companies staffed with professionals who would be well known and respected within the South African art and design community.  That said, ArtLogic has released a statement indicating that Le HBV Marais and Mlangeni are in discussions. Here’s hoping for a good outcome for all concerned.