Indian art world's #MeToo reckoning: Forging an equitable future demands a sisterhood of feminist killjoys

At this crucial moment, sisterhood, through solidarity, is the only ethical force that can truly serve as worthy resistance to the art world’s unchecked oppressiveness.

Rosalyn DMello October 26, 2019 16:14:57 IST
Indian art world's #MeToo reckoning: Forging an equitable future demands a sisterhood of feminist killjoys

Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part column by art writer and critic Rosalyn D’Mello on the patriarchal conditioning at the core of the Indian art world, which has impeded a meaningful engagement with the #MeToo movement.

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Read part 1 of this column here.

Chris Kraus, in her 1997, ground-breaking, genre-bending book, I Love Dick, writes, “Who gets to speak and why... is the only question”. But whose speech is listened to, declared legitimate, and is therefore validated and not disbelieved is also a function of sexism.

When men call out other men anonymously or not, while speaking truth to power, they are labelled ‘whistle-blowers’. When women do, in extreme circumstances, like #MeToo, our testimonies are completely negated, invalidated and discounted; our motives are screened as suspicious; our timing the source of much distrust. (There is never a good time to call out a sexual predator or abuser. Never.)

When women speak out anonymously, we are seen as hiding behind the unknown. No allowances are made for the fact that for many of us who continue to live in a patriarchically governed society, the repercussions can be near violent and panic-inducing. When women speak truth to power, we are treated with the hostility reserved for killjoys.

Indian art worlds MeToo reckoning Forging an equitable future demands a sisterhood of feminist killjoys

#MeToo. Illustration courtesy Namaah K for Firstpost

Sara Ahmed, in her 2016 book, Living a Feminist Life, posits the term “feminist killjoy” to describe women whom no one wants to invite to any party or have at any dinner table because our feminist ‘tendencies’ dictate that we cannot help but expose hypocrisies, injustices, sexism, and inequalities, whenever we encounter them. We cannot hold our tongue. She urges us to recalibrate the potentiality of this position of seeming alienation. “To be unseated by the table of happiness might be to threaten not simply that table, but what gathers around it, what gathers on it. When you are unseated, you can even get in the way of those who are seated, those who want more than anything to keep their seats. To threaten the loss of the seat can be to kill the joy of the seat,” she says. “Let’s take the figure of the feminist killjoy seriously! One feminist project could be to give the killjoy back her voice. While hearing feminists as killjoys might be a form of dismissal, there is an agency that this dismissal rather ironically reveals. We can respond to the accusation with a ‘yes’.”

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At this crucial moment, sisterhood, through solidarity, is the only ethical force that can truly serve as worthy resistance to the art world’s unchecked oppressiveness. It is imperative, though, that such solidarity emerge from a space of deep empathy towards the anonymous survivors of sexual harassment. To begin, we must contend with the state of powerlessness that often makes anonymity the only viable medium for speaking truth without the fear of damaging consequences. If there is such great allergy to anonymity, then we need to focus on evolving viable systems by which identities can be protected and the discontented can feel empowered enough to lodge a complaint without fearing victimisation.

Under the current system, it is not surprising that so many women in the art world are more interested in defending the legal rights of men who have been accused anonymously over social media to file defamation suits than the moral right of survivors to defend their anonymity.

When we were collecting signatures back in December 2018 for our joint statement about creating safe spaces to report harassment, we had to answer many basic questions posed by otherwise highly intelligent, business-savvy women about the predominant threat of defamation suits by powerful men against women; we had to point to many existing precedents. They eventually acquiesced and allowed us to include their names.

Not once did we receive a legitimate question about what assistance could be provided to survivors, could they be rehabilitated in some way, should they choose to pursue any interrogation, how could they be emboldened to speak out. Instead, we began to learn of many instances in which women in positions of power actively decided against hiring female candidates who had been affiliated in some way with our December protest.

Now we have a lot of relatively powerful women eager to mobilise the present momentum and work towards creating a union. But if we don’t address the hierarchical forces that continue to hold sway, any body we create will be flawed from the beginning, because it will inevitably replicate the same patriarchal structures. It is also strangely disheartening that in the 21st century, many of us who work in the art world, who contribute our emotional, intellectual and physical labour and don’t boast legacies of privilege, should have to pay membership fees to belong to a union so that we can then collectively ask for the most basic labour rights and demand safer working conditions, better pay, and perhaps health insurance; all of which should ideally be prerequisites in an industry that thrives on preening its forward-mindedness when it comes to “issues”.

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In a 1979 speech — “What Women Need to Know” — Adrienne Rich proposes a transformation of our understanding of what constitutes ‘power’, a highly charged word for women, given its associations with force and the lack of consent. But for a long time now, feminists have been talking about redefining power, about that meaning of power which returns to the root — posse, potere, pouvoir: to be able, to have the potential, to possess and use one’s energy of creation — transforming power. Radical feminism strategically sought structural transformations “in which power, instead of a thing to be hoarded by a few, would be released to and from within the many, shared in the form of knowledge, expertise, decision making, access to tools, as well as in the basic forms of food and shelter and health care and literacy”.

Rich defines female tokenism as emerging from the false power which masculine society offers to a few women, on condition that they use it to maintain things as they are, and that they essentially ‘think like men’. Rich says, “This is the meaning of female tokenism: that power withheld from the vast majority of women is offered to a few, so that it appears that any ‘truly qualified’ woman can gain access to leadership, recognition and reward; hence, that justice based on merit actually prevails. The token woman is encouraged to see herself as different from most other women, as exceptionally talented and deserving, and to separate herself from the wider female condition; and she is perceived by ‘ordinary’ women as separate also, perhaps even stronger than themselves.”

The unfortunate reality is that most of us come into or are drawn to a feminist calling because we have had an experience of being either wronged or violated, which is potentially shattering. But to live the feminist life entails being wedded to a radical form of housework. “Feminist housework does not simply clean and maintain a house,” Ahmed reminds us. “Feminist housework aims to transform the house, to rebuild the master’s residence.” How we equip ourselves to dismantle the house, its structures, its legacies and its internal piping, is significant, for, as Audre Lorde cautioned us through just the title of her moving 1979 essay — The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.

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While we were foraging for signatures in December 2018, a leading Indian feminist told me she was happy to add her name, but that if we wanted to effect lasting change, we could learn from past movements. Statements are easy to do, the difficult thing is to take some action. An ideal statement could ask people to pledge their time and skill or talent towards creating the safe spaces we were coveting. As women interested in the project of dismantling and restructuring, we must harness the power of solidarity as a counter to prevailing systems of male insolence and impunity, and the perpetuating sway of patriarchal femininity.

To begin with, we must commit to creating a lobby of feminist killjoys, and to start to understand our demands as a collective. Towards the end of Living the Feminist Life, Ahmed speaks of a killjoy manifesto, which must begin by recognising inequalities as existing. “This recognition is enacted by the figure of the killjoy herself: she kills joy because of what she claims exists. She has to keep making the same claim because she keeps countering the claim that what she says exists does not exist.”

The killjoy may therefore be accused by others of building walls, of being too inventive, she may be an easy target to gaslight. “A killjoy manifesto is thus about making manifest what exists. In the labour of making manifest we make a manifesto.” Ahmed says it isn’t just that the feminist killjoy has a manifesto. The feminist killjoy is a manifesto. “She is assembled around violence; how she comes to matter, to mean, is how she exposes violence.” The ‘kill’ in killjoy is important; it must remind us of how feminism is often understood as a form of murder, calling for the end of the system that makes ‘men’ is often understood as killing men.

If anything, now is the time for us to intensify our demands; to continue performing some of the housework that @herdsceneand tried to do, to amplify each other’s voices and in doing so, to genuinely rattle the walls of the entrenched patriarchal systems so that it is dented by our collective resistance and is cajoled into contending with our rage about prevailing inequalities.

The sisterhood of feminist killjoys awaits your participation.

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