Artist says rapper Kendrick Lamar's video for Black Panther song stole her work

Artist Lina Iris Viktor said her work was used without permission in the music video for All the Stars by Kendrick Lamar (pictured).
Artist Lina Iris Viktor said her work was used without permission in the music video for All the Stars by Kendrick Lamar (pictured). PHOTO: AFP

(NYTIMES) - The team behind Black Panther, the film featuring the first black superhero to appear in mainstream comics, is facing allegations by a British-Liberian artist that her work was used without permission in Kendrick Lamar's just-released music video for All The Stars, a song from the movie's soundtrack.

On Saturday, Christopher Robinson, a lawyer for the artist Lina Iris Viktor, sent a letter to Lamar's mentor and label head, Anthony Tiffith at Top Dawg Entertainment, alleging a copyright violation of the 24-karat gold, patterned artworks in her series of paintings Constellations. Viktor had been contacted twice by the film's creators for permission to feature her work, the letter says, but she decided not to participate.

"The infringement of Ms. Viktor's rights is wilful and egregious," the letter says, adding that the artist is willing "to discuss a resolution of all her claims, consisting at a minimum of a public apology for the unauthorised use and a license fee." In a telephone interview, Viktor said, "Why would they do this? It's an ethical issue, because what the whole film purports is that it's about black empowerment, African excellence - that's the whole concept of the story. And at the same time they're stealing from African artists."

Black Panther, which will be released Friday and is already shaping up to be a cultural phenomenon, is a superhero film based on the Marvel Comics character of the same name. It is not clear whether the artwork also appears in the movie, produced by Marvel Studios and distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

Lamar, Tiffith and Disney declined to comment. The music video director Dave Meyers, who oversaw All The Stars along with Lamar and his creative partner Dave Free (known together as "the little homies"), did not respond to requests to comment.

In detailing the infringement, the letter says the video contains a 19-second segment (starting at the 2:59 mark) "that incorporates not just the immediately-identifiable and unique look of her work, but also many of the specific copyrightable elements in the Constellations series of paintings, including stylised motifs of mythical animals, gilded geometric forms on a black background, and distinctively textured areas and patterns, arrayed in a grid-like arrangement of forms."

Nancy E. Wolff, a copyright lawyer who serves as the president of the Copyright Society of the USA, said that the video's directors are likely to argue that the images in the video are not exact copies. But because the gold-on-black aesthetic of Viktor's work "is so strong", Wolff said, "it's just going to look like it's the same."

"It's really tricky because style is not protected," Wolff added, "but I can see why everyone assumed this artist was involved." Viktor said she found out about the video from friends who called to say they'd seen her work in it. And a story about the video on the website Okay Africa last week noted, "The work and influence of British-Liberian artist Lina Iris Viktor can be clearly spotted."

In November 2016, according to the lawyer's letter, Viktor was contacted by an assistant to Jay Hart, a Marvel set decorator, asking to feature her work, Constellations I in the movie, then titled Motherland. Viktor was prepared to consider participating, but ultimately found the financial and artistic terms unacceptable, which ended further discussions.

In December 2017, the letter continues, Mariane Ibrahim-Abdi Lenhardt of the Seattle-based Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, which represents Viktor, was again contacted about the movie by the public relations firm DDA, on behalf of Marvel and Disney. The firm was asking several artists to create work inspired by the Black Panther character for use in promoting the film, including a video, social media and events around the premiere.

Viktor rejected DDA's demand that she "enter into an exclusive license for the proposed artworks, thereby forgoing all artistic control," the letter says, in part because her Constellations series was in the works for the Armory Show in March, "a solo exhibition in a major art fair that would be a milestone in her career."

"We're in an age when no is supposed to mean no in whatever field you're in," Robinson said in a telephone interview. "It's outrageous that they're taking advantage of her."

The Armory Show installation continues Viktor's exhibition at the Amar Gallery in London last year, Black Exodus: Act I - Materia Prima, which explored narratives around race and the African diaspora. A solo show of her work will also be presented in October at the New Orleans Museum of Art.

"We were not interested in giving exclusivity for promotion of a campaign," Ibrahim said in an interview. "My main objective was to bring that work to the art community, collectors and institutions." Viktor added: "We walked away. That's the last I heard."

Lamar, who last month won five Grammys for his latest album, DAMN., was handpicked by the Black Panther director Ryan Coogler to produce and curate the official soundtrack, which includes music from and inspired by the film. The album was released Friday, and features songs by an all-star lineup of hip-hop and R&B acts including Lamar, SZA, Future, the Weeknd and Travis Scott.

All the Stars, the lead single from the soundtrack by Lamar and SZA, sits at No. 54 on the Billboard Hot 100, and its music video was played more than 9 million times on YouTube in its first four days.

In an interview, Viktor said what matters to her most is the principle, not compensation. "Cultural appropriation is something that continually happens to African-American artists," she said, "and I want to make a stand."