Art Fraud Busted
Artful Dodger Show Exposes Plagiarized Work
Posted: January 30, 2013
HARRISONBURG — Regulars of the local art scene helped to bust what one described as a 21st century art heist involving plagiarized work shown at the Artful Dodger, a large Hampton Roads museum and elsewhere.
Norfolk resident Rashidi Barrett, well known to many in the Harrisonburg area as an artist and disc jockey who goes by the name DJ Cornbread, copied or took credit for the work of at least 10 artists from all over the world.
His work, including plagiarized material, has been shown at the Artful Dodger on Court Square, the Wine-Riner Gallery at Larkin Arts in downtown and the Community Gallery for emerging artists at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art in Virginia Beach. It has also been displayed in New York City and New Orleans.
Barrett went so far as to sell some of the forged work, cashing in locally by more than $2,000, according to one estimate, though there has been no investigation by law enforcement.
In a world where people borrow from and build off each other’s work, artists say Barrett went too far in re-creating others’ art.
“There’s a reciprocation of ideas and concepts to a certain degree, but it’s productive. There’s a giving and receiving, but what he’s been doing is just taking,” said Paul Somers, art curator for the Artful Dodger, who considered Barrett a friend. “He’s not giving anything back. He’s not promoting original thought. He’s not creating any body of work himself.”
Barrett, in a telephone interview, described his actions as a mistake borne by high pressure he put on himself to perform well and a strong desire not to disappoint others. He said he initially began painting other artists’ work as a way to better understand his craft and hone his skills, but eventually found himself taking credit for pieces that were far from original.
Barrett, who says he has received death threats over the incident, claims he didn’t mean to fool anyone.
“I’ve lost family and friends over this. I’m not proud of this,” he said. “It’s very difficult, and it’s unforgivable to a lot of people.”
Barrett said he intends to repay everyone who purchased the plagiarized art. Somers, however, said he doesn’t believe that will happen.
Barrett’s misdeeds came to light after an opening for a show highlighting his work at the Artful Dodger on Jan. 11, Somers said.
Somers said a co-worker’s significant other noticed one piece looked oddly familiar, so he searched the Internet when he got home and found the original work, which was done by Brazilian artist Rubens LP.
“I really started to dig in and look at what all there was and it just was really, really unsettling because there was so much that he had blatantly copied and sold to people here in town,” said Somers, who bought two works from Barrett for $450.
“In some cases he just printed off other people’s work and signed his name on it and sold it as prints,” said Somers, who has not decided whether to press charges against Barrett.
Somers said he has identified 10 artists whom Barrett copied: Rubens LP; Matheus Lopes Castro of Brazil; Andrew Archer of New Zealand; Kaloian Toshev of Bulgaria; Joey Zero of the Boston area; Piotr Klakus of Poland; Adrian Knopik of Poland; Chad Trutt of North Carolina; and Change the Thought, a Colorado studio.
“This is what an art heist in the 21st century looks like,” Somers said.
Somers informed the artists of what he found, as well as the staff at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art.
“I’m not trying to slay the guy or focus on something negative,” he said. “We felt like out of our cultural conscience and connection to this community, we had to do the right thing.”
In addition to the show this month at the Dodger, Barrett had his work displayed there last year and in 2011. Larkin Arts featured his work this month.
From May through August, his work was displayed in the hallway community gallery for emerging artists at the Virginia Beach museum during its Andy Warhol exhibit, said Alison Byrne, director of exhibitions and education.
“He had specifically talked about his inspiration for pop art and Andy Warhol,” she said. “It seemed like a good way to show him in that context.”
Debi Gray, executive director of the museum, said one piece from the exhibit has been confirmed to be plagiarized.
The museum works with about 1,700 artists annually, and it has a vetting process that includes meeting with the artists at their studio and asking questions about their work, Gray said.
In Barrett’s case, he “spoke eloquently about his work” and seemed like a legitimate artist, Gray and Byrne said.
“We had no reason to doubt that these were ... his works,” Byrne said.
Museum staff plan to use the incident as a learning opportunity to help new artists to see what they can and can’t do.
Barrett took art classes in high school, but his only other formal training, he said, was a brief time at the Glassell School of Fine Art in Houston. He dropped out in 1993 and joined the Navy, he said.
Lynda Bostrom, gallery director for Larkin Arts, said many artists will “borrow” an image to “support a comment within a new context,” with credit given to the original artist like a citation in an academic paper.
The lines start to get blurry when some words are changed but the idea is the same, Bostrom said.
“However, if you begin the task of untangling the details within copyright [versus] fair use, transformative [versus] derivative, borrow [versus] stolen, it will lead you down a rabbit hole,” Bostrom wrote in an email. “Personally, I think Rashidi leading people to believe these works were of his own conception was wrong.”
Byrne said it comes down to the artist’s intent.
“Are they changing it significantly, that it gives new meaning? That’s where the line gets a little blurry, I suppose,” she said. “Rashidi wasn’t changing the work in any way.”
Contact Jeremy Hunt at 574-6273 or firstname.lastname@example.org