Sex Educator Zoë Ligon on Consent and MOCAD’s Richard Prince Exhibit

The Detroiter chose to speak up when she discovered her Instagram image was being appropriated by the New York artist for a local exhibit. Here’s why.
MOCAD zoe ligon richard prince
Zoe Ligon’s image in MOCAD. // Photograph by Kailey Howell

Under the Instagram username @thongria, Zoë Ligon shares nude pics accented with emojis, graphics that speak to the legalization of sex work, and promotions for her online educational sex toy store, Spectrum Boutique, with her nearly 300,000 followers. She’s built a community that has led to off-screen opportunities, including writing gigs, media coverage, and speaking engagements.

On Oct. 25, the Detroit resident’s social media life jumped off Instagram and into the real world in an unexpected way, though, when Richard Prince: Portraits debuted at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. Among the works in the exhibit, which featured Instagram photos appropriated by Prince — a New York creative who, despite stirring up controversy since the late 1970s, is adored by many of the contemporary art world’s elites — was a 6-foot-tall canvas that featured one of Ligon’s Instagram photos in which she poses in a red bra.

Prince’s art falls into legal gray area, but that wasn’t the only issue. Ligon didn’t consent to the use of the “sexy selfie” — the image was a form of digital self-expression she uses to reclaim her own sexualized image as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. In fact, she only even learned of her inclusion in the show a few weeks before its launch.

Before the public unveiling of Richard Prince: Portraits, Ligon went to MOCAD to speak with the curators behind the exhibit, but when she encountered what she felt to be apathy about her concerns, she took to the internet. On Nov. 1, she posted a photo of her Instagram image being hung on the walls of the museum, with a caption denouncing Prince’s art, which is made using images obtained without the original creator’s permission. In calling him out, Ligon joined a number of others speaking up against the artist, including five people now suing Prince for using similar Instagram portraits in an exhibit at New York City’s Gagosian Gallery in 2014. “This, in my opinion, is a reckless, embarrassing, and uninformed critique of social media,” Ligon wrote in the post. MOCAD responded with a statement, sharing that the museum is a place for conflicting ideas and Prince’s exhibit is meant to prompt discussion on topics such as context and ownership.

As the impact from the controversy settles down (the exhibit closes Jan. 5), Ligon spoke with Hour Detroit about the importance of not staying silent, what she feels the exhibit misses, and how social media can still be a space for positivity.

On why she decided to speak up

“There’s no reason I would ever want to talk about this if I didn’t feel like I had to. … I’m fine. It’s the other people in the show that are being exploited far more than me. I have a larger following than most of the people in the show, and I saw a lot of the other subjects being like, ‘This is really upsetting,’ and it wasn’t making a ripple …, but when I talked about it, it did.”

On declining MOCAD’s offer to remove her photo

“If the piece comes down, it’s still in the collection. Richard Prince still owns the piece, and it’s already been shared across the internet. If we compare this to revenge porn, for instance, just because you put an image up of somebody and then take it down, it doesn’t mean that it’s still not on the internet. The damage is already done. I also wanted leverage to talk about it.”

On the difference between legal and right

“It’s interesting how we equate morals and ethics with laws, when we know that there are many things that are illegal that are ethical — sex work being one. The fact that every person he’s done this to feels very violated, the fact that there are five open cases, I think that’s a pretty good litmus test of it being something that harms people.”

On what the Richard Prince exhibit misses

“It just demonstrates how there’s a lack of comfort with anybody involved in the show of navigating these subjects. And that’s fine, I think we all use art to express the things we can’t directly address all the time. That is one of the beautiful things about art. But it’s corporate, 1-percenter art like this that makes people hate art.”

On social media empowerment

“Instagram has quickly become a toxic place. However, we happen to live in a world where we are reclaiming our bodies through images. I’ve had my less self-aware moments [online], and I love when somebody tells me I can be doing something better. Those are gifts, unlike what Richard Prince gave me. I don’t know if the internet has ever been a safe space, but there are little pockets where positive things come out.”

On challenges local artists face 

“I’ve had friends who lived here and they move and get picked up by massive galleries, but we can’t validate from within. We have to import our talent from elsewhere for it to be cool. We have amazing people here. That’s why [the exhibit is] a f*** you to the city of Detroit.”