The #MeToo movement in the Indian art world asks the alpha male artist to step back and highlights an urgent need to dismantle existing notions of the female form, talent and power
It could have been the Indian art world’s first #MeToo moment. In December 2017, Jaishri Abichandani and a group of people staged a silent protest outside The Met Breuer in New York City, where a retrospective of the late Indian photographer Raghubir Singh had just opened. Brooklyn-based artist Abichandani, who has formerly shown at Delhi’s Nature Morte and Mumbai’s Chemould, Prescott Road held a sign that read, “I survived Raghubir Singh #MeToo!" She alleged that she was raped by Singh in the mid-1990s. However, there were only a handful of public statements from the Indian art community about this. For the most part, there was silence; some even dismissed her allegation on social media.
Until that moment, Singh, who died in 1999, was regarded as a pioneer of colour photography in India. Artist Nalini Malani recounts Abichandani’s protest and asks, “How do we read Singh’s works henceforth? Do we see him as a photographer of great merit or as a man accused of sexual assault?"
It is a question that rankles the Indian art world now: how do you reconcile artists elevated on a pedestal with the allegations of sexual misconduct against them? Abichandani’s protest was a precursor to the accounts of #MeToo that have recently surfaced from the Indian art scene. These personal stories are symptomatic of the biased structure of the art sector, its informal workspaces, and the manner in which casual sexism—be it at art fairs or exhibition openings—has been normalized.
Over the last month, a string of sexual harassment allegations have been made public through an Instagram account called Scene and Herd (@herdsceneand). The anonymously-run account, which chose not to comment for this article, describes itself as “cutting through BS in the Indian art world, one predator and power play, at a time". It collates survivor accounts, protects identities, and has forced major art foundations and galleries to take cognizance of sexual offences. The accounts also point at the duplicitous behaviour of some members of the art fraternity, who profess a feminist politic in their art and writing, but are alleged to behave otherwise in their personal interactions.
On 16 October, a survivor alleged that artist Riyas Komu had violated her when she was in Kochi for work at his invitation. The post on Scene and Herd reads: “Midway through the conversation, he ran his fingers up my arm and thigh, and asked me, ‘What are you really here for?’"
Komu is the co-founder of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB), and was featured in international art magazine ArtReview’s 2017 Power 100, a list of the most influential people in global contemporary art. Komu, in an Instagram post on 18 October, said: “I’m deeply upset that this incident has been understood and presented in this manner". The following day, the Kochi Biennale Foundation released a statement saying: “Komu has stepped down from all his management positions connected to the biennale till the matter is resolved".
Others from the art world who are facing allegations of sexual harassment include artist Jatin Das (15 complaints till date), sculptor Valsan Koorma Kolleri, curator Rahul Bhattacharya, Jamia Milia Islamia University faculty Mir Imtiyaz Ali and photographer Shahid Datawala. The first among them to be named in the recent #MeToo tide on Twitter was photographer Pablo Bartholomew, on 5 October. An anonymous individual accused him of harassment while she was on assignment. In his statement, Bartholomew said, “My intentions have never been to offend or harass anyone. But if I have come across as such, then the matter should be probed fairly..."
The free agent
Bartholomew’s response raises a serious concern. While foundations and institutions have resources to investigate and take action, galleries are often run by small teams, constituting at times just four people, and roping in professionals only for exhibitions or events. Having an HR professional, let alone a sexual harassment cell, seems unfeasible in this kind of a setup. The art world is also tight-knit, often run by families and friends, with businesses built on personal connections.
Additionally, the artistic practice is in essence an independent one, and goes unsupervised by an official authority. That is part of what the fascination of being an artist is—to lie outside conventions, stay on the fringes and question societal mores. Moreover, formal situations seamlessly blend into the informal, such as an exhibition after-party or the friendly studio visit.
What we have in the art world is this—a glamorous and powerful sector that exchanges vast sums of money but is also unregulated and unmonitored. When students and volunteers gravitate towards this arena, what do they do when artists or curators cross the line?
American feminist collective Guerrilla Girls (which is participating in KMB this year) sheds light on this issue. The anonymous female collective, formed in 1985 and known for its feminist interventionist practices, says, in an email, that there is an accepted fallacy within the arts community that it’s somehow above the ethics and regulations that guide other industries. “Not only will regulations protect victims of sexual abuse and hold the abusers accountable, they could also help counter other art world conditions such as exploitation of labour, fraud, and money laundering. A lack of regulations benefits primarily those in power," adds Guerrilla Girls.
Among the galleries that represent Bartholomew in India is PHOTOINK, a photo agency and gallery established in 2001 by Devika Daulet-Singh. She says, “Without going into the veracity of the anonymous allegation against him, at the present moment, I only have his public statement to go by where he has neither confirmed nor denied what has been alleged. Since he has expressed his cooperation to having this allegation probed, I made an announcement to set up an internal complaints committee (ICC). I have already initiated legal counsel to help set this up."
Following the allegations, Photo Kathmandu withdrew its invitation to Bartholomew to participate in the festival, and Mumbai gallery Tarq pulled the shutters on Datura, the recently-opened exhibition of Datawala’s photographs. Beyond immediate measures, how does the art world ensure that redressal systems are in place? Transmedia artist Ali Akbar Mehta suggests that if a network of galleries and museums can come together to organize regular collective activities such as Art Night Thursday or Mumbai Gallery Weekend, then they could “surely come together to helm such a committee for their employees and artists, so that they can deal with mechanisms for redressal, prevention of sexual harassment, and monitoring compliance."
Many of the allegations fall in the “not surprised" area, indicating that these have been open secrets. In February, The New York Times had reported that the former co-publisher of ArtForum magazine, Knight Landesman, had been accused of sexually harassing a number of women over the course of a decade. #NotSurprised was the response to this, in an open letter by over 2,000 artists, curators, gallerists and writers. It stated: “We are not surprised when curators offer exhibitions or support in exchange for sexual favours. We are not surprised when gallerists romanticize, minimize, and hide sexually abusive behaviour by artists they represent. We are not surprised when a meeting with a collector or a potential patron becomes a sexual proposition... Abuse of power comes as no surprise."
With the #MeToo movement, things are slowly changing, but it’s far from enough, says Delhi-based curator Meenakshi Thirukode. “There are students and young women with absolutely no cultural capital, and whose voices are not being heard. In India, women in positions of power—be it gallerists, institutional heads, power list artists or curators—haven’t as yet taken a strong position in support of the movement," she says.
Preying on the powerless
Gallerist Shireen Gandhy, who runs Chemould, says she has never encountered sexism or harassment. She feels that this may largely be because of the privilege of having “noted" gallerist-parents (Kekoo and Khorshed Gandhy). In the last 30 years of running the gallery, however, she says she has heard of art school experiences about teachers overstepping boundaries. “But were these actual instances of abuse?" she asks. “One of my artists related a story of nude study in Santiniketan, where her (male) teacher asked her to look closely at the vagina in order to understand its anatomy. Conversations are always free because as artists or art students, the body becomes such an important element. The liberal atmosphere therefore was something that was taken for granted, (and) artists in my generation seem unaffected by that."
Within art circles, women on the margins of power and privilege are those whose voices go unheard. These could be volunteers, students, young professionals or Dalit artists. It is also the story of MA, a fine arts student, whose two-month-long association with an eminent Mumbai-based sculptor, who has participated in the Venice Biennale, came to an abrupt end about three years ago. “The first few occasions I went to his place went fine, until he made an innuendo about these wooden globes he had commissioned from me. I thought there was something fishy about it, but I second-guessed myself. My hunch was proven right when I visited his studio. He asked me a lot of intimate details about me and my boyfriend—all of which I found very strange. He said that as artists, we get to have these conversations. He went on to boast about his many affairs, until I asked him if his wife knew. To which, he replied, ‘Does she need to?’ Later, he started to suddenly kiss me. I later realized that the sexual content of the conversation was essentially a lead-up for him to make this move on me."
MA exited the scene immediately and a week later texted him saying she wished to keep their interactions strictly professional. The sculptor, in turn, called her to explain that his moves had been misinterpreted. “I just stopped working with him," says MA.
She also feels that in art circles, discussions about sex and sexuality come up often, and are perfectly acceptable. But, the bohemian aura takes on shades of sleaze when it enables seemingly innocuous sexist remarks and questions, such as when Scene and Herd reported about “a male curator working for the rights of Dalit artists (who asks) women artists what the colour of their underwear is". It seems that despite this kind of behaviour, influential men are protected for the sake of art; women who are hierarchically lower in the power structure, such as students, have no option but to put up with it.
Guerrilla Girls observes that gender inequalities and abuse of power by men in the art scene are “no different than abuse of power by men in other sectors except in the art world it often gets excused by misguided ideas of ‘artistic licence’ and ‘exceptionalism’."
The veneration of the artist
Malani says if you look at the West, there are entire generations of artists that devoured women’s bodies for their art. “You can see it in the gaze with which they portrayed the female form, and you can see that in Indian artists too," she says. She cites the example of Pablo Picasso, who infamously remarked: “For me, there are only two kinds of women: goddesses and doormats." Picasso revolutionized depictions of the female form by choosing to distort rather than idealize, but he was also a known misogynist and womanizer. He was an admirer of Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, known as Balthus, whose “muses" were young girls whom he depicted provocatively.
None of this stops Picasso from selling for top dollar. His Les Femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’), a Cubist depiction of Algerian concubines in their harem, sold for $179.3 million (around ₹ 1,300 crore now) in 2015 at Christie’s in New York.
If we take a hard look, this is the very thing that pushes women complainants and survivor accounts into anonymity and tacitly enables the culture of silence.
The market and capitalist forces dictate the manner in which art history gets written, to make sure that the top-selling artists, mostly male, are protected. “The art market has to make sure that the work is kept buoyant. Everything will crumble if the abusive nature of the artist is stressed upon. But that is what capitalism does—it ignores a whole territory of sensitivity," says Malani, adding, “We have to find a way to process this. This includes new ways in art criticism and art theory, and factor that in curricula in art schools."
Her remarks also bring to mind Hannah Gadsby’s stellar stand-up act this year, Nanette, in which she said: “That’s what I keep hearing. ‘You’ve got to learn to separate the man from the art. The art is important, not the artist.’ Okay, let’s give it a go. How about you take Picasso’s name off his little paintings there, and see how much his doodles are worth at auction? F***ing nothing!"
In its parody of one of the most famous nudes in art history—Odalisque And Slave by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Guerrilla Girls posed the question: “Do Women Have to Be Naked to Get Into the Met. Museum?" They discovered that “less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art Sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female". As far back as 1992, one of their posters commented on rape culture and conviction rates: “If you’re raped, you might as well ‘relax and enjoy it’, because no one will believe you."
A structure of violence
“The alpha male artist is like the alpha male capitalist—like (Donald) Trump. He thinks he is entitled to both the terrain of the earth and the woman. It was pretty rampant in my time, and it has always been there," Malani says. The canonical veneration of the male artist, perpetuated through art history and in art schools, has a lot to do with how structural violence is part of the art world.
The 10 most expensive paintings in the world are by male artists. Odalisque And Slave is part of the collection at the Louvre, which hasn’t appointed a female director till date. Sixty-two per cent of the ArtReview power list 2017 was male, though the number one position was held by artist-theorist Hito Steyerl. In a study of auction results between 1970-2013, a team of researchers from the University of Luxembourg discovered that there was a 47.6% “gender discount" for women—meaning, that’s how much lesser artworks by women sell for when compared to those by men.
Recounting the birth of the collective, Guerrilla Girls says its anonymity was a protectionist measure. “We wore masks and took pseudonyms so we wouldn’t be personally attacked and blacklisted by the powerful who we were attacking. We imagine many of the abuse survivors in the Indian arts community are in the same position. But we all have to stand by the brave survivors everywhere who are starting to tell their stories," they say.
Art bastions need to be doubly vigilant, therefore. The KMB is the first truly international art gala to take root in the country. It is also a festival that takes place despite chronic strikes and strict alcohol regulations in Kerala. Over the years, the biennale has done its best to filter sexism, right from appointing a female curator, Anita Dube, in its fourth edition this year, to including more female artists. But, close observers of the KMB note that it still needs to get its act together. Despite having an ICC and an HR manager, there have been survivors who have been unable to use these redressal mechanisms.
A former employee of the Kochi Biennale Foundation, who did not wish to be named, says, “This is what happens when most of the funding is spent on art. Apart from artists and curators, you need a team of able administrators and managers; and set apart funding for other aspects of the festival. Most importantly, decision-making needs to become decentralized."
Several employees of the Kochi Biennale Foundation have now come together in solidarity of the #MeToo movement and to check the abuse of power. If there is one thing that the second wave of #MeToo has shown us, is that the old vanguard is destabilizing and a new language is being forged.
In the light of the #MeToo movement, this is the first in a series on gender dynamics in different sectors and the way forward.
This story has been updated to reflect that an anonymous individual made the allegation against photographer Pablo Bartholomew.