Indian art world's #MeToo reckoning: Toxic patriarchal conditioning must be dismantled for true change

Patriarchal conditioning runs so deep within the Indian art world’s capitalist subconscious, it seems foundational to its identity. The ensuing void that exists in the place of empathy contributes to the industry’s toxicity.

Rosalyn DMello October 25, 2019 09:10:07 IST
Indian art world's #MeToo reckoning: Toxic patriarchal conditioning must be dismantled for true change
  • Patriarchal conditioning runs so deep within the capitalist subconscious of the Indian art world, it seems foundational to its identity.

  • The ensuing void that exists in the place of empathy contributes to the toxicity of the industry.

  • It is all the more acidity-inducing in the art world because this market-driven sector derives its cultural currency and entitlement from the widely accepted, superior idealism of the art-making enterprise.

Editor’s note: This is the first 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.

***

In December 2018, I was among a small group that had used the Q&A session of a lecture performance by the famed anonymous feminist collective, Guerilla Girls, at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, to ask the Indian art world some very difficult questions. We hinted at its complicity in protecting perpetrators of sexual abuse, its pervasive gaslighting of survivors’ testimonies, its lack of empathy towards the most powerless, and its general disinterest in evolving mediatory mechanisms, like the Internal Complaints Committee, which most galleries of a certain size are mandated by law to establish.

When the second wave of the #MeToo movement broke out in India over September-October 2018, allegations emerged against several senior and well-known artists and figures from the art world. On the evening of 21 December, a few days after the Q&A session, many of us — in different parts of the country — scrambled to find signatories to a joint statement condemning the predominant culture that allowed powerful men to weaponise civil defamation suits to either punish or intimidate survivors of sexual violence, prohibiting victims from speaking out.

Indian art worlds MeToo reckoning Toxic patriarchal conditioning must be dismantled for true change

#MeToo. File photo/Reuters

A little after 8 pm that night, it seems that Khoj director Pooja Sood sent an email to Subodh Gupta (among the personalities who had been named in anonymous #MeToo allegations) and his wife, cajoling them into voluntarily stepping down from the board. It could have been an exceedingly simple, courteous, and professional piece of text. It could have been sent from an official email address and not from Sood’s personal account. But perhaps the lack of clear demarcation is understandable, given the well acknowledged conflation between Sood’s identity and that of Khoj’s since its inception in 1997. There are so many possible permutations that could illustrate how such an email could have ideally read. But the letter that Sood did send on 21 December 2018, reads the way it does exactly because it is deeply symptomatic of the art world’s toxicity.

When @MeTooIndia tweeted a picture of the email, because it had been included in the petition filed in the Delhi High Court by Gupta’s lawyers as part of his civil defamation suit against the anonymously-run Instagram handle (@herdsceneand) on which the allegations against him were shared, it felt oddly validating to finally have some public proof of the patriarchal femininity that’s foundational to the Indian art industry. Many have been and remain blindsided by the predominance of women in this sector, from art dealers to curators to writers. But patriarchy, as bell hooks so elegantly reminds us, “has no gender”. Simply having or allowing more women to occupy positions of power in a certain space does not make them safer if the participating women remain committed to capitalist-patriarchal ideology.

Sood’s email pussyfoots around the allegations made against Gupta. She is “equally devastated and angry with the way things have blown up”. In the first paragraph itself, before she can even get to business, so to speak, she alerts both addressees to the fact that “several of us are talking about the need to figure out a way to redress this situation which, though important and necessary, is clearly being misused to damage not just individuals but families.” Having thus over-emphasised that her allegiances lie quite uncompromisingly on the side of patriarchy, she then moves from wearing her “friend” hat to her other hat, presumably as director of Khoj, and makes a plea for them to voluntarily step down, to protect themselves and the organisation they helped co-found. She names two other patriarchal feminine allies — Shirin and Geeta — who are “frothing at the mouth about the way this METoo [sic] movement is being misused to target people.” In doing so, she commits to the email their allegiance too, speaking on their behalf that it would be in the addressees’ best interest “for all of us” to lie low.

The egregious persuasion does not end there. She insinuates that if they continue to remain on the board, Khoj may become a punching bag for the “beastly powers that be”. The next line begins not just with a capital first letter, but with the whole word capitalised, to overstate the overwhelming solidarity and insider allegiance there is toward Gupta. “ALL the Board members are completely with both of you but also feel that till things are sorted, it would be best for you to step down.” Furthermore, she continues, in bold text, to establish that this protective gesture of temporarily stepping down is “NOT [sic] an admission of guilt.” She packages it as a responsible act for Gupta as a well-meaning individual for an institution he cares for. She mentions another person accused anonymously by the same Instagram handle who did much the same when the allegations were made, resigning from his post as a trustee of the Kochi-Muziris Foundation. “I hear he is very clear that once the biennale is over he is going to do what he needs to do. It is also good for YOU to protect yourself from any more mud-slinging.”

Three more paragraphs follow, in which Sood gives suggestive, strategic instructions to both addressees: “I would like to suggest that you send a letter stating that as a Founding and Board member with a deep sense of responsibility towards Khoj, you are stepping down from Khoj till such time as the allegations are sorted. We can quote this as it sounds responsible and generous and will be taken well by all.”

At this juncture, I will pause from my epistolary critique, for these sentences that I just cited lie at the nucleus of the art world’s toxicity that Sood’s letter is complicit in perpetuating and of which it is also symptomatic. Also, the purpose of this breakdown is not to take down or villainise Sood. Doing so would be contrary to some advice my therapist recently gave me: “Don’t confuse the person with the problem”. In all likelihood, Sood is possibly quite unaware of how she has herself been instrumentalised by patriarchy.

The most disturbing line in the body of the entire email (and in this matter, we are indeed spoilt for choice) is the rationale behind why the addressees should send the suggested letter saying they would voluntarily step down until such time as the allegations are sorted —“We can quote this as it sounds responsible and generous and will be taken well by all.” Sood is essentially proposing not the high road but the path that is most convenient and gets her, Khoj, and the addresses off the hook in one fell swoop. The selling point of this strategy is that “it sounds responsible and generous and will be taken well by all”. This is significant; because it is exactly in keeping with the general ethos of the Indian art world. It is, indeed, all about the look of things, the management of perceptions, the superficial engagement with ideology. Dig deeper and you uncover a resounding, reverberating hollowness.

***

Sood makes every effort to sidestep the singularly most important question; that of accountability. It was far easier to malign the entire #MeToo movement that was at the heart of it all; and way more convenient to find ways of shaming the Instagram handle that had decided to hold the art world accountable by unrelentingly exposing its many hypocrisies, sometimes at the cost of alienating even its supporters.

Granted, there was a preachy undertone to the handle’s morally superior stance. But it existed because no one had bothered to create any viable alternatives. No one in power was interested in initiating or participating in complex, nuanced discussions around gender inequality and labour rights in the overtly hierarchical art industry. The Indian art world has always been more at ease with hanging exhibitions about these subjects, and selling art by artists who also cash in on them as issues, but there has been no demonstrated desire to engage in any corrective measures to actually create spaces that are safe for women and other marginalised entities. There is only preaching and not a sliver of practice.

This is because patriarchal conditioning runs so deep within the Indian art world’s capitalist subconscious it seems foundational to its identity. The ensuing void that exists in the place of empathy contributes to the industry’s toxicity. While this is the hallmark of most sectors in a capitalist-patriarchal-casteist society, it is all the more acidity-inducing in the art world because this market-driven sector derives its cultural currency and entitlement from the widely accepted, superior idealism of the art-making enterprise, and the cult of the male genius artist, like Picasso, whose many sexist sins we are told to forget because of the many masterpieces he created and his sincere originality that, we are told by The Canon, was not at all appropriated from other indigenous cultures.

The cult of the male genius and the subscription to the boy’s club has historically ensured the status quo is maintained. This, if anything, explains why un-empowered women who needed to survive these spaces — essentially every industry under a capitalist set-up — depended on whisper networks. It was how we unofficially had each other’s backs in situations whose power dynamics were beyond our explicit control. But empowerment, through feminist discourse, naturally upset the status quo.

Part 2 — Forging an equitable future demands a sisterhood of feminist killjoys.

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