Feud over a ‘stolen’ face leads to ‘mentally debilitating’ backlash – and ethical gray area

From left to right: Singapore artist Allison M. Low’s January installation for clothing store Love, Bonito; the original 2017 photograph of model Duan Meiyue; and Low’s 2020 work ‘Weight of Longing.’ Photos: Allison Low/Instagram, Duan Meiyue/Instagram, Li Wanjie
From left to right: Singapore artist Allison M. Low’s January installation for clothing store Love, Bonito; the original 2017 photograph of model Duan Meiyue; and Low’s 2020 work ‘Weight of Longing.’ Photos: Allison Low/Instagram, Duan Meiyue/Instagram, Li Wanjie


A model’s most valuable commodity, her very face, was taken without her knowledge and used to enrich someone else. A portrait artist says she endured severe mental anguish after the model, whose face she drew, unleashed furious fans on her for not meeting her demands for compensation.

In a conflict only possible in the social media age, control of identity, its ownership as a commodity, and where the line is crossed between expression and exploitation are at the center of the bruised feelings felt by both 32-year-old Allison M. Low, the artist; and Singaporean model Duan Meiyue, 22.

Low described to Coconuts the “mentally debilitating” cyberbullying that began with something she didn’t expect would lead to a public reckoning: basing part of a drawing on Duan’s face. She said Duan retaliated by naming and shaming her online last week when she refused to meet demands that had grown excessive.

“The relentless shaming and threats that followed have been mentally debilitating. It is unfortunate that this has brought about so much negativity, especially through art which came from a place of positivity,” Low told Coconuts.

Duan, who did not respond to messages from Coconuts, wrote on social media that the experience took a toll on her “emotional and mental wellbeing.”

“Everything the artist has done so far has been very detrimental to the model’s career, as it is her job to monetize her likeness,” read Duan’s Instagram post outing Low. “Her actions have also crossed personal boundaries by publicising the model’s face without her consent, which made negative impact on her emotional and mental wellbeing.”

Low began creating the works over a year ago, but the dispute erupted much more recently, after Duan discovered her face in a drawing posted by Low in January 2020. It shows the model’s head, eyes closed, attached to what looks to be a large stone. Low made no effort to hide the source of her inspiration: The drawing credited by name both Duan and the photographer of the 2017 image the likeness was based on. 

 

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A post shared by 美玥 (@dmeiyue)

And that image has done well for Low. 

Titled Weight of Longing, it is listed as sold out on her online store, where it is priced at EUR1,875 or S$2,995 (US$2,230). It was also used as the cover for the third edition of the bestselling Ministry of Moral Panic by renowned local author Amanda Lee Koe. Variations also appeared in installations exhibited in January and printed on tote bags and pendants sold by clothing store Love, Bonito.

Breach of copyright, under Singapore law, protects drawings, paintings, photographs, and other works from use in derivative works, and calls for fines of S$10,000 per infringing item.

Attorney Ronald JJ Wong, director of Covenant Chambers LLC, told Coconuts that using Duan’s photograph as a reference did not violate copyright. It’s the similarity between the photograph and Low’s drawings, that touch on what are known as “personality rights,” which could be an issue legally – were there such a law in Singapore.

“[T]he issue is not an alleged violation of copyright owned by the photographer or model. Rather, the issue is that the model’s likeness has been allegedly used in the artist’s illustrations without the model’s authorisation,” he wrote.

It comes as all of Singapore’s faces are being put up for grabs by the government to private corporations, with little clear idea of what safeguards or protections exist to prevent abuse.

Low certainly felt she was not crossing any legal lines when she made the image.

“I have always believed in freedom of artistic expression, and I never thought that being inspired by something or someone could ever go awry,” Low said. “The artworks I made were about the strength and grace in women, and it was never my intention for art to ever bring harm to anyone, especially not through art that was made to uplift people.”

But what may be legal may not be free from ethical issues. 

That was until Duan reached out in January, just after the exhibition opened, asking for an unspecified sum in compensation. Low says those demands escalated to include a public apology, removal of all related artworks, and all related income generated. 

That led Low to seek legal help and determine she had no legal obligation to do any of that.

“To gain more understanding, I sought legal advice to check if I may have crossed any lines – which was never my intention. I was advised that the demands were made without any legal basis,” she wrote.

It was at that point, after she had refused to meet Duan’s demands, that the model took to Instagram to say she had “been wronged” and accuse Low of refusing to compensate her. 

“[I] was refraining from revealing the artist’s name for a while now as i wanted to settle this issue privately,” she wrote. “[H]owever there was nothing else i can do now as the artist chose not to acknowledge this situation and properly compensate me.”

She said she only outed Low to her 50,000 followers to discourage other artists from doing the same, calling it “violating and exploitative.”

“[M]y intention is not to instigate any hatred towards this artist, just to bring light to how i have been wronged and how i am not legally protected from this unless i have money. it is also to educate other artists to not do this to anyone, model or not. do not commodify a person’s face without their consent,” she wrote. 

That’s when people began attacking Low as “shameless” and “unethical.” 

As for those who paid Low for her work, both the clothing store and Koe, the author, said they did not know the art used Duan’s image without her consent. 

“We were not informed that the commissioned pieces were inspired by Mei Yue’s likeness. We empathise truly with her frustrations,” a Love, Bonito spokesperson told Coconuts.

Koe told Coconuts she was not involved in choosing her book’s cover art and has ordered a halt to its publication.

“I was not aware that the illustration was based on a photograph of Mei Yue, much less that the illustrator had not asked for Mei Yue’s permission. Although I was not involved with the cover decision, I asked the publisher to cease future print runs with this design,” she said.

Low says she hopes to clear things up with Duan – eventually. 

“In spite of everything, I still believe that social media and the creative community is a place where we can continue to learn, meet new people, grow and share ideas. I want to emphasise that I am open to engaging with Mei Yue when the time is right,” she wrote.

 

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A post shared by Allison M. Low (@allisonmlow)

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