Did Rachel Dolezal Copy Internationally Famous Painting And Pass It Off As Hers?

After being forced to resign as president of the Spokane NAACP on Monday, Rachel Dolezal spent most of yesterday trying–and for the most part, failing–to quiet the furor over the overwhelming evidence that she lied about her ethnicity. Despite loudly asserting on NBC News that she identifies as black, her birth certificate clearly shows that she is white. Now it looks like a new inferno may be welling up while the embers from the last one are still smouldering. One of Dolezal’s paintings may actually be a copy of an internationally famous work about the slave experience.

Rachel Dolezal. Source: FB
Rachel Dolezal. Source: FB

Dolezal’s day job is as a mixed media artist. In December 2012, she showcased a triptych of acrylic-on-panel paintings on her blog. The middle panel was “The Shape of Our Kind,” which depicted a ship sailing into a sunset amid choppy seas. On Saturday–while the firestorm over Dolezal’s race-faking was building to a fever pitch–Twitter user CLAJR happened to notice unmistakable similarities between Dolezal’s painting and a much more famous painting.

The painting on the right is “The Slave Ship,” an internationally famous 1840 piece by J.M.W. Turner that now hangs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. It depicts slaves being thrown overboard by a slave ship captain and left to the tender mercies of the sea. On Sunday night, Twitter user Joie Abrams apparently came to the same conclusion as CLAJR–Dolezal’s work isn’t just similar to Turner’s, it’s almost too similar.

Given how renowned “The Slave Ship” is internationally, in hindsight it’s hard to understand how questions about the “The Shape of Our Kind” weren’t raised sooner. In February 2015, a feature story about her in Eastern Washington University’s student newspaper included a picture of Dolezal sitting in front of her now-infamous triptych. Had it been questioned then, we wouldn’t even be having a discussion about Dolezal’s race-faking.

Dolezal grew up in a horribly abusive, borderline cultish family in Montana. You could plausibly chalk up her attempts to pass herself off as black as a misguided attempt to rebel against that background. While I can understand wanting to break away from such a past, she would have done better trying to get counseling for her ordeal. I initially thought this was a case of a woman who poured so much of herself into helping others that she didn’t take time to get help for herself. But there’s no way you can plausibly chalk up potential plagiarism to an abusive childhood.

I admit, I know very little about the art world. But I know enough to know that is no defensible reason to copy an internationally famous painting and pass it off as your own. Dolezal might have been able to rehabilitate herself if she had merely been faking her race–though that would be an awfully big “might.” But if it turns out she’s a plagiarist as well, then she’s more or less finished. If there is anything at all to this, then there would no longer be any doubt–the issue with Rachel Dolezal isn’t her ethnicity, but her ethics or lack thereof.

Darrell is a 30-something graduate of the University of North Carolina who considers himself a journalist of the old school. An attempt to turn him into a member of the religious right in college only succeeded in turning him into the religious right's worst nightmare--a charismatic Christian who is an unapologetic liberal. His desire to stand up for those who have been scared into silence only increased when he survived an abusive three-year marriage. You may know him on Daily Kos as Christian Dem in NC. Follow him on Twitter @DarrellLucus or connect with him on Facebook. Click here to buy Darrell a Mello Yello.