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Do the Watusi: Art, imitation, and the Obamas

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By Michelle Malkin  •  October 8, 2009 05:49 PM

Yesterday, we chuckled over the indecision-themed “word art” that the Obamas chose to hang in the White House.

Today, a Free Republic poster notices another of the Obamas’ curious art choices: “Watusi (Hard Edge),” by Alma Thomas, who is described by the NYTimes as “a longtime Washington resident who is an African-American painter.”

Alma Thomas’s “Watusi” (1963) looks to be an almost exact reproduction of a 1953 piece by Henri Matisse titled “L’Escargot:”

Here they are side by side, with “Watusi” rotated and on the left.

Another blogger actually raised questions about the piece back in July: “I have been on a rant about this for three days. But I mean, really. Look up both images on Google, turn Thomas’ 90 degrees to the left (right?) and you tell me if this work should be included in the new White House Collection of American Art, not to mention how the ____ did it ever get chosen for the Hirshhorn in the first place? Can anyone say plagiarism? American art? I don’t think so!”

Brian at Snapped Shot has a very helpful and amusing animation.

Here’s how Art in America rather generously described Thomas’s piece:

A good place to begin thinking about Alma Thomas’s ravishing late work might be the moment in 1964 when, close to paralysis and bedridden, the 73-year-old artist found herself staring at the hollyhock shadows she had known her entire life and calculating how to use them in her paintings. A year earlier, she had seen the late Matisse cutouts at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Matisse’s work had prompted her to paint an acrylic-on-canvas version of his collage The Snail (1953), in which nearly all the original colors were reversed. Thomas named her painting Watusi (Hard Edge), after Chubby Checker’s dance hit “The Watusi.” As well as marrying high modernism with the popular culture of black America–then entering the American mainstream–the title she chose noted Matisse’s debt to African art.

Hmmm.

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I know, I know. Cries of “RAAAAACIST” in 3, 2, 1…

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Behold my new creation, “Twist:”

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