Tempers flare over Damien Hirst ‘copy’ of African art

Once again UK artist Damien Hirst has found himself in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. The bad-boy of British art has been accused of plagiarising an ancient Nigerian brass artwork in his show at the Venice Biennale. “Golden Heads (Female)” features in Hirst’s exhibit “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable”, which is on display at the Palazzo Grassi and the Punta della Dogana museums during the Biennale.

Nigerian visual artist Victor Ehikhamenor says Hirst’s piece copies a classical African artwork found in 1938 in Ife, Nigeria without properly crediting the original Ife craftsmen. “He just made an imitation of this art”, Ehikhamenor said in an interview. “I really found that it was dishonest that something like that is going on”.

Curator of the Hirst show, Elena Guena, explained that “Treasures” is intended to bring together the precious fictional cargo of an ancient shipwreck and that Hirst was inspired by classical African sculptures held in the collections of the British Museum.

According to a statement from Hirst’s office, “Golden Heads” is accompanied by a written description on a label inside its display cabinet and in a leaflet produced for the show, which refer to the Kingdom of Ife as part of a fictional story about the origin of Hirst’s sculpture. “The Treasures are a collection of works influenced by a wide range of cultures and stories from across the globe and throughout history — indeed many of the works celebrate original and important artworks from the past,” the statement reads.

On the contrary, Ehikhamenor argues that Hirst’s work is more appropriation than celebration. The artist, whose own Biennale exhibition examines artists who have been “forgotten and written out of history” took to Instagram to express his outrage. “For the thousands of viewers seeing this for the first time, they won’t think Ife, they won’t think Nigeria. Their young ones will grow up to know this work as Damien Hirst’s” he wrote underneath a photo of Hirst’s sculpture.

This is not the first time accusations of plagiarism have been levied against Hirst. In 2000, it was revealed that the controversial artist staved off legal action for breach of copyright by paying an undisclosed sum to toy maker Humbrol Limited, whose £14.99 toy anatomy set is said to have inspired Hirst’s sculpture “Hymn”.

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