Venus of Waldorf, stone, 30,000 BC

Jac Lahav an artist and curator recently organized an online exhibition that address the issue of Instagram and censorship head on. The conversation below delves into an attempt of dissecting these policies and artists who’ve been effected.

Katy Diamond Hamer: What initially peaked your interest in censorship in the realm of social media? Were you yourself ever censored?

Jac Lahav: In 2017, I read that the Venus of Willendorf, a sculpture from 30,000 BCE of an abstract female form, was removed from Facebook because of their particular nudity policy. [The fact] that anyone would find this sculpture offensive was mind boggling to me. This lead me to quickly learn that both Facebook and Instagram heavily censor images of women’s bodies.

Clarity Haynes, Sara Morning Star, painting on canvas, @thelesbiangaze

The artist Clarity Haynes wrote a brilliant essay for Hyperallergic describing how it feels to be censored. Haynes paints large scale realistic portraits of torsos, often depicting breasts. These works are continually censored by Instagram and Facebook and her essay was a real eye-opener since my paintings don’t include nudity and aren’t censored in the same way. I really want to amplify the voices of those who are under attack.

KDH: In your statement you mention how the show came about during the COVID-19 lockdown. Can you speak about how being in quarantine gave you the mental space to explore the concept of “shadow-banning”?

JL: COVID-19 hit at the tail end of the New York art fairs this year. We split our time between Connecticut and New York and had just returned to Lyme, Connecticut after participating in the super crowded Spring/Break Art Show, with a giant group show and thousands of people daily in our booth, to complete silence. During quarantine, Instagram is the way most artists communicate with new audiences. I had been planning this show for a while, and after cultural institutions closed their doors, I knew it had to happen NOW. 

Digital collage of artists participating in Lahav’s exhibition. 2020

KDH: The exhibition raises inquiries regarding nudity and “nudity versus obscenity.” I’ve always thought that Westernization culture deems nipples as nudity and therefore obscene. While nipples are commonplace and found on every mammal. Do you think this culture will ever change or become less based on gender?

JL: Society is already becoming more gender fluid, but Instagram is taking us backwards. It’s important to realize that 75% of Americans age 18-29 are on the platform and it is influencing cultural growth big time!

One great example of fighting back is female artist and breast cancer survivor, Micol Hebron’s artwork on the male nipple. Since male nipples are allowed within Instagram’s policy, Hebron created a sticker/pasty of a generic male nipple (according to wiki-media) for women that points a finger at the hypocrisy involved [in censoring and removing images exposing female nipples]. 

Micol Hebron, Male Nipple, Didactic, 2014

Another crazy example is the censorship of pubic hair. Tiffany Saint Bunny runs a popular account called @TruckSlutsMag, a feed that explores queer truck fetishists. Her work is an aggressive response to homophobia and the white supremacist / nationalistic messaging of American truck lovers. A particular image that Bunny posted revealed some of a model’s pubic hair and was subsequently removed by Instagram. Contrarily, a photograph of a similar scantily clad figure by artist Leah Schrager, without any exposed pubic hair, was not censored. 

I then learned Schrager makes sure to photoshop any pubic hair from her photos to avoid algorithm censorship. I find myself asking, ‘So are pubes that dangerous?’ It’s hard to even quantify in what ways Instagram’s algorithm is influencing the next generation!

KDH: How did you find the artists in the exhibition? What was your research like?

JL: I knew of a few artists who’d been censored, mainly from their vocal outcry on Instagram. Everyone I spoke to hinted at someone else [who had a] crazy story as well. Since Instagram doesn’t like transparency, we only know of their policies through anecdotes. By writing down these new oral histories I came in touch with artists like Joanne Leah whose artwork collaborates with sex workers, members of the trans community and non-traditional models to create fantastic colorful obfuscations of nude bodies. She also runs “Artists Against Social Media Censorship” and is actually talking with employees at Instagram to get accounts unbanned. Joanne Leah introduced me to Leah Schrager who’s alter ego is a celebrity sex-worker with over 3 million followers. Schrager’s work is an example of how even a hyper popular “cis-sexy-model” is effected by Instagram’s censorship policies.

Peter Clough, Collage courtesy of the artist and Haul Gallery, 2020

Also of note, is that the LGBTQ community is under attack. In one case, artist Peter Clough who uses images of his own body to question subject and object, found that even tame images involving male nudes are taken down. Clough heavily censors his own work because it often pushes the boundaries between pornography and art. Accounts like his act as both promotion and archive. Having posts flagged has serious repercussions for an artists career.

KDH: Instagram’s double standard around sexualized nudity in comparison to nudity in fine art is one of my biggest pet peeves. What if anything have you learned by doing this project? 

JL: When social media began, we were sold on the idea that everyone would be able to find their niche. Now as platforms become monopolies, we see the Internet is becoming a land of sterile corporate consumerism. We are quickly losing our digital “safe space” to be our true selves. 

I’m shocked by how much Instagram’s censorship policies impact us as a culture. We know that they are targeting women’s bodies and LGBTQ communities, but they could just as easily be censoring the recent protests or political activists. Algorithms work in the shadows and the problem is we don’t know how our voices and information streams are being edited on a daily basis!

Screenshot by Lisa And of the Museum of Sex Instagram account

I hear a lot about how Instagram isn’t working for artists and we need a new digital platform. It’s a really tough problem because their platform is so big, which is good and bad. There are over a billion users posting over 95 million photos per day! The sheer size is a boon for artists and [as an artist myself,] having my artwork seen by people around the world is amazing. All the artists in the show are actively still using Instagram, they just want it to be friendlier towards their work and their community.  

In my curatorial practice I discover new amazing artists on Instagram all the time. In August our project space is even showing an artist I learned about through Instagram.  Aaron Alexander @greattheaaron is a young, Black artist originally from the Bronx, NY, who has only shown his work on Instagram. His small oil paintings on cardboard are personal, violent, visceral, and beautiful. They are a modern day counterpoint to the works of Bill Traylor and really say something about our current political situation.

BANNED, Instagram’s Shadow, can be viewed online at and features work by Betty Tompkins, Christen Clifford, Chiara No, Clarity Haynes, Joanne Leah, RawMeatCollective (Kyle Quinn), Karlheinz Weinberger, Kumasi Barnett, Lissa Rivera, Leah Schrager, Michael X Rose, Micol Hebron, Peter Clough, Shona McAndrew, Steve Lock (Bill Arning), Sara Jimenez, and Tiffany Saint Bunny.

Curator and project space can be found on Instagram respectively @jaclahav and @42socialclub


Katy Diamond Hamer is an art writer and founder of the website Eyes Towards the Dove. For more of her art adventures visit and @katyhamer on Instagram.