KERALA, India — On Friday, December 14, the Guerrilla Girls — a famed, anonymous group of feminist artists devoted to fighting sexism and racism within the art world — staged a performance-lecture as part of the fourth Kochi-Muziris Biennale, an art exhibition and festival that is the largest of its kind in South Asia.
However, during the Q&A afterward, a number of artists, curators, writers, and culture workers stood up to read a collective statement outlining their grievances with the biennial’s administration. The group read a set of questions inquiring about the biennale’s lack of response toward recent allegations of sexual abuse by one of the biennale’s cofounders and prominent members of India’s art world, Riyas Komu, and prominent contributor, artist Subodh Gupta.
The intervention was staged in response to recent allegations of sexual abuse that have rocked India’s contemporary art community. Earlier this year, an anonymous Instagram account, Scene and Herd, launched, giving women a platform to voice instances of sexual harassment in the Indian art world.
In October, artist and cofounder of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Riyas Komu, was forced to step down after allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced against him via the Instagram account.
In response, the Kochi Biennale Foundation issued a statement saying that a committee would be set up to “inquire into this matter,” adding that, “though the Foundation has received no formal complaint, we are collectively committed to ensuring zero tolerance to any harassment or misconduct. Riyas Komu has stepped down from all his management positions connected to the Biennale till the matter is resolved.”
Then, on December 13, the Instagram account lit up again, this time with accusations of sexual harassment and misconduct against the Indian artist Subodh Gupta, who is listed as one of the Silver Patrons of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. The allegations against Gupta were reported widely in the Indian press.
The claims against Gupta relate to his recent tenure as one of the curators of this year’s Serendipity Arts Festival in Delhi. His accusers claim that that the 54-year-old made unwelcome advances on several occasions to several unnamed young women who worked under him. They include accusations that he “grabbed the hand, touched the stomach, breasts, shoulders, pulled at bra straps, rubbed the thighs” of several coworkers. Moreover, that he “loudly asked a senior gallerist, pointing at a new assistant he had hired, ‘do you think I should fuck her tonight?’”
The accusations against both Komu and Gupta come at the heels of growing concern about sexual harassment in India, particularly in light of the #MeToo movement that has started many conversations within the Indian art world. According to Skye Arundhati Thomas, a Mumbai-based art critic, episodes such as these, which are “instructive of how what is being touted in the press as ‘India’s MeToo Moment,’” are starting to initiate important conversations about structural sexism in the Indian art world. In an article published this November in Frieze, Arundhati Thomas said that many of the victims of sexual abuse and violence in the field choose to “remain anonymous in an effort to protect their already fragile place in the art world.”
The Scene and Herd Instagram account, which currently has more than 3,000 followers, is devoted to posting anonymous stories of mistreatment and abuse in India. Its page description reads: “Cutting through BS in the Indian Art world, one predator and power play, at a time. Current posts from our personal experiences. We choose anonymity.”
In India’s close-knit art community, male gatekeepers often exploit their privilege in ways that prey on young interns and gallery assistants, Arundhati Thomas says, leading to what “appears to be a lack of support and solidarity between networks of women and trans people in the subcontinent, where much of the conversation is entirely semantic: people are more concerned with debating their definitions of feminism instead of finding productive solutions, or conjuring up legal jargon rather than working together on new frameworks for negotiating allegations of assault,” she said. But this “conversation is also being conducted in a closed loop,” Arundhati Thomas points out. “Class and caste bias continues to operate in the ‘calling out’, where trans people, Dalit people, and the working class have been given little opportunity to voice their experiences.”
After the allegations against Komu surfaced, the biennale claimed they were setting up an “internal complaints committee” to handle accusations of sexual assault by members of its staff. However, activists claim that as of the opening day of the biennale (December 12), the complaints committee has yet to be formally initiated, and one of the accused (Komu), had been thanked multiple times by organizers during the opening ceremony and was spotted within the TMK Warehouse, one of the biennale’s main venues.
This prompted the group of concerned activists to organize a meeting the day after the biennale opened. On December 13, a group of about 60 people — including many senior members of India’s art community together with a younger generation of artists and cultural practitioners — met in Vasco de Gama Square in Fort Kochi, with the aim of discussing what a collective response to the biennale’s lack of collective response might look like.
The group decided that rather than penning an open letter, they would make a collective statement during the lecture-performance of the famed American feminist art collective the Guerrilla Girls. After the 40-minute presentation, in which the Guerrilla Girls discussed their decades-long activism for female rights and visibility in the Western art world, several members who had attended the previous night’s meeting in Vasco de Gama square, stood up to read aloud a statement and a series of accompanying questions.
First was Rosalyn D’Mello, a New Delhi-based author and art critic, who began: “We are collectively moved by the propositions grounded in artistic works of this biennale edition, and its declaration to listen and enrich our solidarity through extra-institutional conservations that take place as a community. In this spirit, we have a set of questions to share … ”
She then passed the mic to curator Sumitra Sunder, who continued: “Who are members of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale internal complaints committee currently? Have all workers — including volunteers and all temporary staff — of the organization been informed about the committee, its role, and scope of activities?”
Passing the microphone to Rattanamol Singh Johal, they continued: “Is the investigation of Riyas Komu underway? What is the timeline for this investigation to be completed? Will the investigating body at KMB and other cultural organizations take measures to protect the anonymity and safety of the survivors who come forward to provide testimony?”
Confused and befuddled, the Guerrilla Girls replied by stating that while they agree with what the protesters had expressed, they were ignorant as to the specifics of the case. They then asked if the demonstrators had taken up their issue with the biennale staff, to which D’Mello replied:
Some of us actually did approach the biennale […] but looking at the apathy towards the accusations being made [against both Komu and Gupta], the fact that no one really seemed to care was troubling. And also the fact that at this very biennale, at various forums here, one of the names of the co-founders [Kumo] who has been publicly named and thanked, has made many people here very uncomfortable. And because of that, we wanted to address that within the space of the biennale, but were discouraged from doing so. This is why many of us met yesterday and why we are here today.
A thunderous applause followed, as many audience members stood in solidarity. The Guerrilla Girls replied by asking D’Mello to send them more information so that they can get a better read on the events and act accordingly. After several other questions, the moderator of the event handed the microphone over to curator of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Anita Dube, for the final word.
Dube did not address the activists directly, deciding to use the platform to thank the Guerrilla Girls for their imported activism.
“Thank you,” she addressed the Western art activists, “this proves that we can have a space for insurrection,” Dube said.
Unconvinced, many of India’s leading artists and activists present expressed solidarity with the protesters, stating their hope that this could be the start of a broader conversation about violence against women in the culture sector in India and beyond. Many, like the famed photographer Dayanita Singh, expressed hope that events like this could serve as a catalyst for broader conversations about patriarchy in Indian society at large, stating with hope that new platforms could be developed due to events like this with women’s voices leading the way. Others, like artist Sumir Tagra, expressed similar views, adding that more democratic and non-profit spaces are necessary to facilitating women’s voices in art in light of #MeToo. The art writer and critic Natasha Ginwala weighed in also, stating that policies ought to be in place within institutions like the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, which, it should be noted, receives a significant portion of its budget directly from the state of Kerala.
Read their full statements below:
“There is a big shift happening in the younger generation and we have to listen to them, not judge, not counter, just listen or the rupture will be terrible for all of us. Last night was a step in that direction. As photography is the area where there are no institutions, not many galleries, yet women are out there on their own. One cannot protect them in the streets but atleast among the community they should feel safe. I realise that in my moving away from the boys club and refusing all women related exhibitions etc etc, I actually went away from being a support for women in the field. I intend to change that now. In my own small way in this macho field of photography.” — Dayanita Singh,
“The issues and claims that are emerging are very complex, urgent and extremely sensitive. To address them maturely, we must all be willing to engage in an open dialogue while being self aware. My gesture is in support of a necessary demand to create safe and democratic spaces for work. Spaces which value each and every individual, on the basis of their effort and not because of a binary understanding of any person.” — Sumir Tagra, Artist
“Those of us who convened for a public conversation in kochi on Thursday night, did so from a place of empathy and due to the urgency for a directly address of unresolved concerns around sexual misconduct and vulnerability within a hierarchical work place, be this at kochi-muziris Biennale or other spaces in the art world. Rather than relying entirely on virtual interfaces, there was the collective decision made to open an exchange toward a sustained shift for safer and more balanced professional environments. For this to happen, those who have been victims of abuse need to re-gain trust and feel there are mechanisms for protection in place for their safety and well being. self-defense and suspicion need to give way to a zero-tolerance policy that has legal implications. Only then actual reparation and healing can take place. We felt that this ‘people’s biennale’ which many of us across the Indian art world feel stakeholders of, should be the ground where such matters are taken up with openness and as a community action.” — Natasha Ginwala, Curator and Writer