On Sunday, December 3, approximately 30 people joined artist Jaishri Abichandani in front of the Met Breuer building in New York City for what she described as a “feminist participatory public performance” in response to the retrospective of Raghubir Singh taking place inside. Abichandani has publicly claimed, first on WNYC on October 13 and then later in numerous status updates on Facebook, that Singh had sexually abused her in the 1990s.
At 4pm EST, Abichandani and fellow performers gathered on the sidewalk near the Madison Avenue entrance of the museum and held up red signs made by artist Swati Khurana with the words “ME TOO” in block letters, while placing red-colored gags — made by Fariba Alam and Abichandani — over their mouths. Abichandani’s sign stood out from the group by declaring, “I SURVIVED … RAGHUBIR SINGH # ME TOO!”
The silent performance lasted roughly an hour and a half, during which time a small group from the performance — a word Abichandani uses for the action instead of protest — went inside to stand by the exhibition entrance with their signs. About 10 minutes later, the small group returned to join the other performers on the street.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which administers the Met Breuer, reached out to Abichandani before the performance to express its support for her right to speech. Sandra Jackson-Dumont, the head of the museum’s education department, responded with the museum’s position. “The Met fully supports the right to free expression and therefore we wish to assure you that we will not try to stop you,” she wrote in an email that was shown to Hyperallergic.
She added that
the Museum takes very seriously any allegation about sexual assault and/or harassment … . My colleagues and I have conversations about these topics and related work on an ongoing basis. We are considering ways that we can continue our dialogues in public settings. We are planning an open forum in the near future to discuss the role of museums in navigating the challenge of unexpected revelations about works of art or artists. I invite members of The South Asian Women’s Creative Collective to engage in the discussion. … Let me underscore The Met’s support of your courage to speak out.
The reaction from the museum was a welcome surprise to many, including Abichandani. “I’m pleased with the letter I got from Sandra,” she told Hyperallergic, adding that the institution was clearly “opening a door to what I was saying, but it really remains to be seen what the institutional response is [going to be] longterm.”
Hyperallergic reached out to the museum for comment on the performance protest and received the following statement:
Following the opening of the exhibition Modernism on the Ganges: Raghubir Singh Photographs at The Met Breuer, an individual alleged in a public forum that she was sexually assaulted by Mr. Singh. The Museum was not aware of this allegation previously. The Met is working to enable the protesters’ right to free of speech while ensuring that the event is neither disruptive to our museum visitors nor puts any art at risk. We are also looking into planning an open forum to discuss the role of museums in navigating the difficult questions associated with allegations and revelations about artists and works of art.
The news of a forthcoming “open forum” was encouraging to the participants in the performance I spoke to. They all seemed hopeful, including Imani Uzuri. “I feel like the Met Breuer has handled this very well,” she said. “If it’s an institution of art, they should support people’s free expression and the right to protest and the right to resist.”
Uzuri was happy to support Abichandani, but she framed the performance more broadly. “I’m concerned with how we deal with rape culture,” she said. “How do we deal with a culture that supports abuse — that’s the most important question. How do we make it so that the culture does not support people feeling comfortable and powerful to keep perpetuating this type of oppression?”
Dozens of bystanders walked past the performance, including tourist Susan Shmalo. “I’m here visiting from San Diego and I’m very aware, like everybody, that #MeToo is because of Trump and all the other bad guys. And so I think it’s important to demonstrate like this to bring attention to it,” she told Hyperallergic. Asked if she saw the exhibition, or if the performance would impact her perception of the artist, she replied: “I’d like to read more about him and I would like to see the show even though these people are protesting what he did, which is horrible. I think I will look at the show differently and be in sympathy with those that he hurt.”
Margaret Mary Thompson lives across the street from the museum and she was glad the performance was taking place. “Well, I love it. Everywhere across America, the ladies are speaking up,” she said. “I’m all in support of them. It’s time that women not be silenced, and not be intimidated.”
Everyone I talked to who encountered the performance was uncertain as to how the museum should respond to the allegations, but they seemed thankful that the performance was taking place.
Critic Nadia Nooreyezdan also attended the event. After reviewing the Singh show for Delhi Arts Magazine, she received an email from South Asian Women’s Creative Collective (SAWCC) that the Met Breuer action was taking place. She said she wasn’t aware of the allegations when she wrote her review. “I think that definitely changes the way you look at the artwork,” she told Hyperallergic. “There are certain photographs in the show that I kind of read a little differently. [There were images that] had a little red flag for me when I was looking at it, but I wasn’t sure, and now I’m taking a second look.”
A few passersby tried to talk to the performers, and at one point two middle-aged white men in black suits interrupted them, forcing one of the participants to remove her gag and tell the men to stop trying to engage them and that they should be “more diplomatic when approaching people.” As one of the men walked away, he said, “Women abuse men, too.”
Abichandani told Hyperallergic about the incidents with Singh, which she says began in the mid 1990s. “When I met him, I was a 25-year-old photographer. He was the most well-known photographer in the world. He had books and books and books to his name, and like every other Indian photographer, I idolized his work because it was some of the only representation of India that was out there in the world,” she explained. “I was introduced to him through a woman … at a party. And this was a very progressive South Asian space, and so I trusted the space and him. He was double my age.”
Singh invited the young artist to accompany him after he discovered Abichandani was traveling to India. “He exploited that opportunity and he basically told me that I could travel as his assistant and he would have his publisher pay for me,” she said. “I was like, well, my family’s paying for my ticket, we’re going to be in India, I don’t need you to do this, we’re going to be there anyway. He said ‘no, no, no, no, no, I’m going to make sure they pay for your ticket.’
“In spite of my parents’ warnings and trepidations, I went off with Raghubir Singh,” she continued. “His assistants had booked me hotel rooms for the first few nights after which I was told there was no money for separate hotel rooms. … And I was completely trapped.” Abichandani alleges that Singh raped her during that two-week period in India.
Hyperallergic spoke to two of the artist’s friends whom Abichandani had confided in at the time. Both asked to remain anonymous. One of them said Abichandani told her immediately after she returned about what happened. “She felt trapped, like a prisoner,” the friend explained. “At that time, being a woman in India, especially as a young woman … it was a different place so the ability to leave your situation was that much harder.”
The second friend explained that Abichandani confided in them roughly a year after the incident, when she told the person what Singh had done. While the person did not remember many details of the conversation, they did recall that Abichandani had said Singh rubbed “his body up against her.”
Abichandani also recorded her experience in a dated diary entry that she showed to Hyperallergic. She did not report the incident to authorities at the time because, she explained, she felt that the older artist would take revenge.
Sunday’s outdoor performance concluded with a song performed by Uzuri, and then Abichandani proceeded to hug each performer as a thank you for taking part. The finale was clearly emotional for all those involved, as many took the time to share stories and experiences of their own.
“He used his art to trap me, so I can use my art to talk about my experience with him,” Abichandani told Hyperallergic about her performance.
Hyperallergic has reached out to the estate of Raghubir Singh for comment.
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Additional reporting by Claire Voon