Artist Richard Prince, who was last seen hawking his marijuana brand, has once again ignited controversy with his “New Portraits” series, which involves reproducing enlarged versions of Instagram posts on canvas.
Zoë Ligon, a Detroit-based sex educator and sex-toy store owner, is decrying the usage of her image by Prince in a work that is now on view in a just-opened show of his “Portraits” at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit.
In a post to her Instagram account, where she has more than 268,000 followers, Ligon writes that she did not consent to her image being used in the piece, and describes it as “a reckless, embarrassing, and uninformed critique of social media and public domain.”
MOCAD’s director, Elysia Borowy-Reeder, said in a statement that “as soon as I learned of her concern I reached out and invited her to come and speak and share concerns.” They met before the show opened. Borowy-Reeder said, “We asked if she wanted us to remove the work from the exhibition and at the time, she said that she did not want it taken down unless we removed all the works in the exhibition. MOCAD has no plans to censor the entire exhibition.”
Ligon said in an email that because the work “was already hung and shared online”—Prince posted it on social media—“taking it down felt like an attempt to get me to shut up as opposed to actually hearing why I felt that it was exploitative and harmful work.” Citing her work as a sex educator (“consent is my wheelhouse”), she said she asked that the show be removed or “or curated with a conversation that would actually invite discourse about consent in a public forum. It’s amusing that Elysia suggested that taking the show down would be ‘censoring’ the work given that it is all stolen, exploited work.”
In the original selfie, which she posted in August 2018, Ligon appears in a red bra with a caption criticizing laws that restrict sexual behavior and sex work, and writes, “I don’t care if you masturbate to my mostly naked body as long as you listen to what I have to say about sexual freedom, which inherently includes matters of class, race, gender and ability.” (To this, Prince added a caption that reads, in part, “Red Bra & 21thow others. Right now Golden State Warriors are killin it. Arugula salad.”)
In her post about Prince’s work, Ligon writes, “I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Part of the reason I take ‘sexy selfies’ is because I am reclaiming my own sexualized image. To see my image on the walls of MOCAD feels as though a picture I’ve taken of myself to reclaim my sexual body is being used to violate me all over again.”
Borowy-Reeder said in her statement that the works in the show are not for sale and that they are “are designed to prompt discussions about context, ownership, and originality.” She added, “MOCAD respects the opinions of the community that it serves and artists that are exhibited and stands by their right to express themselves freely.”
(Both Ligon’s statement on Instagram and MOCAD’s statement follow in full below. I’ve reached out to Prince, and will update this post if I hear back. As of press time, the work was on view at the museum.)
In a follow-up comment on Instagram, Ligon said, “I would like MOCAD to make a large donation to Sex Worker Outreach Project since this is a post about criminalization of sex work and harm reduction,” and added, “I’m not looking for personal justice, more so larger scale change and accountability.”
Prince first showed the “Portraits” in an exhibition at Gagosian in New York in 2014. At the time, some pictured in them raised objections to their photos being reproduced without their permission, and at least five lawsuits were filed.
One work in the series—featuring Ivanka Trump—also became the form of an unusual political protest by the artist in the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, when he reportedly returned his fee to Trump, who had commissioned the piece, and disavowed the work via Twitter, writing, “This is not my work. I did not make it. I deny. I denounce. This fake art.”
Update, 8:40 p.m.: Comment from Ligon was added to this post.
Here is Ligon’s statement from Instagram:
Imagine my surprise when I saw Richard Prince tweet a 6ft inkjet printed picture of a screenshot of an Instagram post of mine hanging up in my hometown of Detroit at MOCAD. I didn’t consent to my face hanging in this art gallery.
What Richard is doing is questionably legal, but even if something is legal and “starts a dialogue” it doesn’t mean you should actually do it. Not all legal things are ethical. This, in my opinion, is a reckless, embarrassing, and uninformed critique of social media and public domain. This is appropriation artwork. This isn’t progressive, this isn’t even subversive. Maybe it was when he began doing this in 1977, but in 2019 it’s tone deaf.
I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Part of the reason I take “sexy selfies” is because I am reclaiming my own sexualized image. To see my image on the walls of MOCAD feels as though a picture I’ve taken of myself to reclaim my sexual body is being used to violate me all over again. Given that millions of people are sexually assaulted each year, I imagine I’m not the only one who feels this work is a violation of boundaries on a much deeper level.
And here is MOCAD’s statement:
Like many contemporary cultural institutions, MOCAD has always been a space for the playing out of disparate and conflicting ideas. We state in our mission that we fuel critical dialogue, we are proud of the critical and important work we are doing to present progressive and challenging artists and exhibitions for vast audiences. The works in the exhibition are not for sale, and are designed to prompt discussions about context, ownership, and originality–questions first asked in an institutional setting over 100 years ago by Marcel Duchamp, and more pressing than ever in our world of social media and big data. We invite audience/visitors to our free public programs to engage in the dialogue. MOCAD presents over 17 exhibitions and over 250 free public programs a year.
A talk by Brian Wallis on the work of Richard Prince will be held on Nov. 7 with a community dinner to follow, furthering the discussion. RSVP would be greatly appreciated.
The point of the exhibition is to speak about these issues of ownership and ask these questions. This is a very relevant discussion. Is social media empowering people or co-opting artistic production? Where do our expectations and perceptions around privacy and consent lead us when using social media? What are you to consenting to when posting? Is all photography exploitive?
MOCAD respects the opinions of the community that it serves and artists that are exhibited and stands by their right to express themselves freely. With regard to the subject of the portrait, as soon as I learned of her concern I reached out and invited her to come and speak and share concerns. We met before the show opened to the public at the Museum. We asked if she wanted us to remove the work from the exhibition and at the time, she said that she did not want it taken down unless we removed all the works in the exhibition. MOCAD has no plans to censor the entire exhibition.
Anyone who undertakes a Richard Prince show understands that some visitors may have difficulty with the work. We invite their perspectives and further discussions about Richard’s artwork.