‘Appropriation Art’ or ‘Revenge Porn’? The Subject of a Richard Prince Instagram Portrait Slams the Artist’s Use of Her Image

Zoë Ligon says she feels "violated" by the use of her image without her consent.

Installation view of Richard Prince's exhibition "Portraits" at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. Photo courtesy of MOCAD.

An exhibition of Richard Prince’s portraits at Detroit’s Museum of Contemporary Art has renewed controversy over the artist’s use of appropriation after the subject of one of his latest Instagram works spoke out against the appearance of her image in the show without her consent. 

The subject of the work, Zoë Ligon, a Detroit-based sex educator and owner of a sex toy store, is not the first to object to Prince’s “New Portraits” series. After the works were first shown at Gagosian Gallery in 2014, many of the subjects voiced their concerns, and at least five lawsuits were filed, according to the New York Times

Ligon says that she is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and suffers from PTSD, and that her “sexy selfies” are a way of reclaiming her own sexualized image. When Prince used one of Ligon’s posts, in which she appears in a red bra, she says she felt “violated” by the artist and the museum, and that the incident has damaged her mental health.

“My being harmed only contributes to the ‘art’ of it all, and this resembles revenge porn and harassment more than anything else,” Ligon tells Artnet News. 

In a statement, the museum’s director, Elysia Borowy-Reeder, says she offered to remove the work from the exhibition when she first heard about the concerns, but Ligon declined. Ligon countered that the museum should either remove all the works in the exhibition, or engage with her objections more carefully within the exhibition’s programming.

In her statement, Borowy-Reeder says that the purpose of the exhibition is precisely to raise questions about ownership. “This is a very relevant discussion,” she writes. “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 exploitative?”

Installation view of Richard Prince's exhibition "Portraits" at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. Photo courtesy of MOCAD.

Installation view of Richard Prince’s exhibition “Portraits” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. Photo courtesy of MOCAD.

The museum director also announced that there will be a talk about the works by Brian Wallis, a faculty member at Bard College and former chief curator at New York’s International Center of Photography.

Ligon says that this response is not good enough. “Having a single speaker who is a white man from New York is not an effective way to engage the Detroit community in a conversation about this,” she says. “Had they curated the show with a diverse panel that included speakers outside of the New York art and literary world, it would have the potential to accomplish MOCAD’s stated goals.”

After she spoke out publicly about the exhibition, Ligon requested on Instagram that the museum make a “large” donation to the Sex Worker Outreach Project, since her original post was about the criminalization of sex work and harm reduction. Ligon says that the museum has neither made the donation nor changed its programming surrounding the exhibition, calling the whole affair an “egregious abuse of financial and social power.”

“This is appropriation, but it is also expropriation—the seizure of property for an intended public benefit, except it is the wealthy one-percenter art world which benefits in this case,” Ligon says, “not the public.” While Prince has historically sold these artworks, a museum spokesman told Artnet News that the work is destined for Prince’s Ryder Road Foundation, and will not be sold commercially. 

Prince did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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