Jiha Moon and Kombo Chapfika debate fair use

A local artist’s appropriation of another artist’s work raises questions about the line between fair use and plagiarism

In mid-November, Atlanta artist Jiha Moon came across an image of a 2013 painting entitled “Alien Hybrids” by former Atlanta resident Kombo Chapfika. Immediately, she recognized key visual components from her 2011 piece “Yong!Yong!Yong!” Moon took her find to Facebook, where the conversation spread quickly. The influence was undeniable — prominent, identifiable parts of Moon’s piece were present, unchanged, in Chapfika’s painting — but what was less clear was the assessment of whether or not Chapfika had crossed the line of appropriate handling of intellectual property. Was this a case of harmless, benign aesthetic osmosis between two artists working in the same city, or was this an outright example of one artist ripping off another?

To reduce the situation to a concrete answer, the conversation extends into a broader examination of morals and intellectual property in contemporary art; in a creative climate where artists are increasingly aware of each other’s work, and have easier access to a deluge of outside media, where exactly is the line between influence and plagiarism?

In some instances, reaching a verdict about alleged plagiarism is almost inarguable; knockoffs are everywhere (including my closet), making up about 7-10 percent of all global commerce, and are generally easy to spot. But in the world of contemporary art, with its ever-more-complex fondness for symbolic reference and conceptual use of iconography, the boundaries can become painfully blurred.

When an artist isn’t wholly reproducing someone else’s work, rather taking little bits and reusing them, what parameters and applications constitute fair use? What counts as artists simply working within the same sphere of influence, and using elemental pieces that feel similar to each other? At what point does repurposing become appropriation, and who gets to decide?

In this case, Chapfika defended “Alien Hybrids” as an homage, confirming that it does draw from Moon’s piece, among others.

The piece references work by a few of my favorite female artists, though the others aren’t as obvious. I can see some of Jen Stark’s strings from her wackier days and the face references an African portrait photographer I follow on Flickr.”

Moon, however, doesn’t condone the way Chapfika goes about using her work. According to her, the use of someone else’s work without giving explicit credit requires the borrowed imagery to be commonly known enough to carry its own identity.

“I use other people’s work in my art all the time,” says Moon. “Referencing art is a code — when viewers see my art, they are recognizing my identity, but also the work I’m referencing. It’s something everyone knows like Hello Kitty or Angry Birds or a smiley face — it has its own identity.”

Therein seems to be the defining line of acceptable practice in an artist lifting visual components from their original environment and reusing them in new work; the borrowed images must have reached an iconic status where, no matter what context they are used in, they are recognizable as having their own identity and weight in the eyes of a viewer. Nobody thinks Andy Warhol created Mickey Mouse. It’s the difference between something that contributes only visually to a work of art, and something that contributes contextually.

If an artist is “paying homage” to other artists by taking complete elements from their work, but offers no way for viewers to know that’s what he’s doing, and the elements themselves aren’t well-known enough to make that statement on their own, does the notion of “homage” become a scapegoat for “I liked what I saw someone else do and wanted to use it”?

The issue comes down to transparency. If the unoriginal components to the work lack the iconic weight to declare their own identity apart from the artist whose name they’re appearing under, the burden falls to the artist to illuminate the reference. If Chapfika had credited the artists from whom he borrowed, this particular situation might come across differently. Or, says Moon, if he had simply asked permission:

“When I make references to another artist’s work, I would tell that artist. If I loved some of the mark making on a drawing that I really needed to borrow, I would ask. I take it and reconstruct it.”

Further looking into Chapfika’s catalog of work shows that perhaps “Alien Hybrids” isn’t the first occasion of questionable use of an Atlanta artist’s work. In 2012’s “Julia MD,” Chapfika appears to use a version of a piece by another local artist (and, interestingly, Moon’s husband) Andy Moon Wilson.

For perspective, let’s compare the issue to writing, a medium where the rules of plagiarism and ownership are more concretely established and clearly examined: If someone writes something that reuses thoughts or ideas originally put forth by someone else, but uses those pieces as building blocks for constructing something entirely new, that could be called influence. (To be fair, even that line is a little vague; restating someone else’s thoughts with your own words can still often be cited as plagiarism, but let’s keep it simple for this purpose.) If, however, a writer borrows word-for-word excerpts without giving credit to their original author, it’s blatantly stealing. By Moon’s standards, what Chapfika did is tantamount to copying entire paragraphs from someone else’s writing and slapping his byline on it, and as such, is beyond the line of acceptable creative morals.

Ultimately, Dashboard Co-op, a local exhibition-based arts organization who worked with Chapfika briefly in 2010 and whose website housed the images that first came to Moon’s attention, decided to remove the images in question, deeming them “inappropriate and misrepresented.”