Cutty Snark: The Fine Art of Instagramming #MeToo
A slightly-edited version of this column was published in today’s Hindustan Times.
About 10 days ago, some people on Instagram got a rude shock. “What ya,” one person complained to me. “I followed them because they had all these models in their feed, but now they’ve become the Akashvani of abuse.”
It began with an anonymously-run account called Scene and Herd, which began putting up stories of sexual misconduct by artists in India in early October. Soon enough, there were others who began collecting accounts of harassment and abuse published in mainstream media and social networking sites. The world of Indian art world was suddenly being x-rayed and the sexism slithering through its nervous system was exposed. Some victims named their abusers, others dropped hints and the feeds of those who chose to amplify the voices of victims, were lit with rage and outrage.
The accounts aren’t easy reading. The women are all painfully vulnerable. The men are all nauseatingly convinced of their awesomeness and entitlement. “As I resisted, he grabbed my breasts and said I smelled nice.” “He began kissing me and feeling me up while I struggled to even process what the hell was going on.” “You bit my shoulder and neck multiple times after I told you to stop…”.
Art – the realm of rebels, home to rulebreakers, the stomping ground of those who thumb their noses at convention and evidently, the roost of creepy ‘uncles’. By this, I don’t mean actual men with nieces and nephews, but that bizarre animal that is a sexist know-it-all, loyal resident of the state of denial, skilled in the art of delivering non-apologies and ignoring the absence of consent. Female counterpart: ‘Aunty’.
As old and young artists were called out, it became evident that the abusive behaviour has been enabled by the art world – other artists, gallerists, curators and collectors – who have maintained diplomatic silences to protect the ‘talent’. They are the secret-keepers and they are responsible, in varying degrees, for the toxic work culture that women have described in their posts. They’re one of the reasons that those accused will say they’re open to being probed, as though it’s a challenge they’re throwing down to their accusers. With their silence, the gatekeepers have signalled that they’ll protect the predators and maintain this abuse-friendly status quo.
The allegations have been coming thick and fast, but we’re yet to hear from the gallerists who provide these uncles, sorry, artists with platforms and market their works. Perhaps they’re lying low, waiting for this storm to blow over. Maybe they were distracted by the Frieze Art Fair in London. Maybe they haven’t realised that this is not a debate about ‘personal vs professional’, but a series of complaints that look at the condition of the Indian art world as a workplace. You cannot ask to be taken seriously as professionals if there is no professionalism or codes of conduct to ensure the basic dignity and security of those who work in this space.
All Mumbai’s gallerists need to do is issue a joint statement stating they are committed to making the Indian art scene safe and secure for all; that they will cease to work with the living artists and curators who have been accused until and unless they’re convinced that the alleged abusers have made amends. Then, they need to stand by that statement. (We’ll put a pin on the conversation that Indian art needs to have about the importance of context, recognising abusive behaviour in artists no longer in our midst, and how that information can inform the art they created.)
In the oppressive and enabling silence of the art world, two organisations have responded with maturity: The Mumbai gallery Tarq, which shut down an exhibition by photographer Shahid Datawala after he was outed, and the Kochi-Muziris Biennale Foundation (KBF). KBF issued a statement saying its co-founder and secretary Riyas Komu — one of Indian contemporary art’s big names — had stepped down from all managerial positions connected to the Biennale, pending an inquiry into the allegations against him. Earlier, women employees of the KBF had shared a post in which they said they believe the accounts in which Komu is described as a sexual predator. Komu, in full uncle mode, put up a non-apology in which he says, “I’m deeply upset that this incident has been understood and presented in this manner. However, as the person has expressed hurt, I would like here to offer my apologies and I am opening myself to the possibility of a conversation.” You may now crumple in gratitude.
“The problem with you feminists is that there’s no making you happy,” I was informed recently, but actually, it’s very easy to make us happy. All we’re asking the establishment to do is acknowledge the experiences of victims and make professional spaces, like the Indian art scene, safe for those who are preyed upon. Instead we’re being told we should feel guilty for ‘destroying’ the careers and prospects of allegedly predatory men. However, the definition of an artist is not one who is represented by a gallery. Artists remain free to create and in the age of the internet, they can even market themselves. Also, as is obvious from Louis CK being back on stage just a year after being outed for sexual misconduct and Indian journalists blithely getting hired within months of being fired for sexual harassment in the workplace, allegations don’t destroy careers. If anything, they give predators another chance – to rinse and repeat like before or to help change their industries for the better.
Which behaviour will you, their audience, enable?