In all her artistic guises, Leah Schrager is a beautiful woman. In the tradition of feminist artists like Hannah Wilke, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Katharina Sieverding, and Andrea Fraser, Schrager knows her beauty’s impact when exploring its effects. Whether harnessing her beauty to create art as her Instagram cam-girl identity, Ona; as Sarah White (The Naked Therapist); or under her own name, Schrager confronts the power, privileges, pitfalls, and prejudices of being a sex-positive, confident woman in command of her own sexual pull.
Schrager launched Ona in 2015 as an active cam-worker and conceptual art-project pushing cam-girl aesthetics and the boundaries between sex work and the artists who sell postmodern self-objectification and creative intimacy. Ona nimbly straddles lines between aesthetic and sexual arousal. Her feed is a constantly creative and arousing blend of artful angles, witty captions, seductive expressions, and tantalizing near-nudity. Instagram, as the completely contemporary (not retro) itineration of classic burlesque, is where Ona (alongside other digital sex workers) performs a strip-tease through poses, edited-in digital pasties, and cheeky comments. Her work exists within and comments on the toxic irony of online culture’s relationship with pro-sex empowerment. As she said on Instagram last year, “Sure, it’s trendy to support female empowerment via ‘you go, girl’ and ‘be proud of your body,’ yet a digital ‘art world’ is being built on purified platforms like FB, IG, and Drip that censor out nudity and limit, to a huge degree, how some girls (and artists) wish to express pride, and, yes, even profit off their bodies.” In accordance with her designs, Schrager plans to retire Ona in 2020, having amassed 3 million Instagram followers, recognition in Artforum and Playboy, and insights into online culture’s values, priorities, and changing perspectives.
Ona hasn’t failed; as Schrager sees it, Ona’s audience failed her. Instead of exploring the discomfort she intended to place before them, viewers consumed her without digesting the deeper questions she was raising—notably, is it more unsettling to see Ona enjoying her work or to recognize that she is working via our enjoyment of her? As Eric Sprankle, associate professor of clinical psychology and sexuality studies at Minnesota State University, asks, “What if sex work wasn’t viewed as inherently exploitative work, but viewed as work within an inherently exploitative economic system?”
In October 2018, Schrager launched a different project on her own Instagram feed, which evolved into a captivating extended narrative informally titled Man Hands. Through her teasing, novelistic captions and evocative images, she told a bi-coastal story of working with an unseen powerful male patron. According to her narrative, “MH” committed a serious sum to helping her, Svengali-style, create a SFW/ “female friendly” artistic persona. Over time, in almost daily posts, their dynamic turned turbulent as the inherent power dynamics exposed their individual, and conjoined, vulnerabilities, investments, and aspirations.
While she prepared to show work in “Cam Life: An Introduction to Webcam Culture” at New York’s Museum of Sex (through May 31, 2020), Leah and I curled up on her studio floor to discuss Ona, art, the art world, beauty, and the spookiness of identically placed beauty marks on our cheeks.