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  • Oct 22, 2018

#MeToo Accusations Shock The Indian Art World

Two of the artists accused of sexual misconduct on social media in a recent wave of #MeToo revelations. Left, artist JATIN DAS

On October 19, the Kochi Biennale Foundation managing committee issued a statement saying that Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) co-founder and secretary Riyas Komu would step away from his duties, due to sexual misconduct allegations that have recently come to light, “till the matter is resolved.” This decision was reached after the Foundation held a meeting earlier that day: “Though the Foundation has received no formal complaint, we are collectively committed to ensuring zero tolerance to any harassment or misconduct, and have decided to constitute a committee to inquire into this matter.”

The 47-year-old Komu is accused of grave sexual misconduct, as detailed in a post published on October 16 on the Instagram account Scene and Herd (@herdsceneand), which collects and posts stories anonymously. The victim recalls her encounter with Komu in Kochi in 2015, where he had lured her to the city under the pretext of professional advice: “Midway through the conversation, he ran his fingers up my arm and thigh, and asked me, ‘What are you really here for?’ . . . He made his way into the room first and immediately pushed me against the wall. He began kissing me and feeling me up while I struggled to even process what the hell was going on . . . It stopped just as abruptly as it had started. And then he left. It didn’t stop here. I was violated again by him during my stay in Kochi.” On October 18, Komu addressed the incident on his Instagram account, stating: “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.”

The Indian art world has been rocked by the explosive escalation of the #MeToo movement since October 8, when Scene and Herd began posting similar stories of verbal and physical harassment, financial exploitation, overt sexism, attempts of rape, sexual coercion and other grave sexual misconduct by various male and female figures. While some perpetrators are unidentified in these posts, others are named outright, such as Padma Bhushan awardee Jatin Das; sculptor Valsan Koorma Kolleri; curator Rahul Bhattacharya; professor Mir Imtiyaz Ali; and Komu. In several of these posts, there are mentions of these incidents taking place at major art events in full view of other attendees, curators and artists. 

A string of accusations have been made against 76-year-old Jatin Das. On October 15, a post was published on Scene and Herd detailing an incident in which the artist invited a young woman to be his assistant, and propositioned her sexually on the night of her arrival in Delhi: “I was just starting my career in the art world. I was asked the same night to change to my night clothes and come to his bedroom.” A day later, Nisha Bora, co-founder of a paper-making company, claimed on Twitter that Das molested her at his studio 14 years ago. This was followed up on by writer Garusha Katoch, who said that, during her very brief internship at the Jatin Das Centre of Art in 2013, he attempted to kiss her after tricking her into going to his house; and Malvika Kundu (via Sandhya Menon's Twitter), who said Das touched her inappropriately when she was his assistant, at 18 years old, around 1999 or 2000. 

Another anonymous poster shared on Scene and Herd on October 16 that the 65-year-old Valsan Koorma Kolleri had invited her and a friend to his studio to paint, during which he isolated her from a group gathered there, and “forcibly kissed my face, then my body . . . He told us of other female students he has relationships with. He talked of abusing others with the same calm smile that he talked about his work . . . I remember him telling me . . . ‘I knew from the first moment that you were a red woman.’” Kolleri led a sculpture workshop in June as part of the Kochi Biennale Foundation's Master Practice Studio program and participated in the KMB's 2014 edition. 

Rahul Bhattacharya, the founding organizer of the Kolkata International Performance Art Festival, has been called out for gaslighting, financial exploitation and psychological abuse. An anonymous poster wrote on Scene and Herd on October 18: “Rahul Bhattacharya has been calling up colleagues at my place of work and asking them about my whereabouts, getting messages conveyed that I’ll make sure she doesn’t get allotted a space to work next year.” 

In an October 20 post on Scene and Herd, a former student details sexual assault by Mir Imtiyaz Ali, then sculpture professor at Jamia Milia Islamia University in Delhi. When the victim tried to level a complaint against Ali, the university threatened her with rustication (suspension) unless she retracted her statement. Prior to his alleged attack on her Ali had told the woman to clip her nails (women who are assaulted often accumulate DNA from the skin of their attackers under their fingernails), and later ran a public petition labelling her as a “characterless girl.”

These cases are symptoms of a much broader, systemic abuse and exploitation of female professional cultural workers in the Indian art scene, and suggest that patriarchal oppression and toxic masculinity fuel institutional establishments and events such as the KMB, which will open its fourth edition on December 12. The #MeToo movement in India and among Indian diaspora artists began to stir last December, when artist-curator Jaishri Abichandani held a silent performance-protest outside and inside the Met Breuer in protest against her alleged rapist, the photographer Raghubir Singh, whose solo exhibition was on view on the premises. 

Speaking about the timing and purpose of the account, the anonymous user(s) behind Herd and Scene and wrote, in a direct message to ArtAsiaPacific via Instagram: “What we want to highlight through these accounts is abuse of power—sexual, financial, psychological and emotional. There is a lot of gatekeeping in the Indian art world and that's a problem too. We created the account and chose anonymity because the art world is so small in India. There’s a generation that would think that casual misogyny and causal sexism is ok. It’s just boys being boys. A lot of what’s being exposed is already known within whisper networks. But it can’t just stay there as gossip because that’s what’s been enabling these men in power. Half the gallerists, including a lot of women in power positions, and big-name artists that suddenly seem to support us are all complicit—they’ve watched and done nothing for years and generations and some, going by the comments, seem to continue to gaslight survivors. The hypocrisy is too much. We see a clear divide between older and new generation feminists. This dismissal of assault and harassment by an older generation of women in the art world before the #MeToo movement is something a lot of us have not forgotten. This is a time for introspection and actual change from within institutions, art schools and art world events, as well as at an individual level.”

In other posts, some perpetrators are not named, although details of times, dates, roles and involvements in specific Indian art scenes are revealing. One states: “When a well known newly wed artist instructor from a recently established art school that you go to invites you for drinks and uses your vulnerability as a young student to ask you for sex. It ruins your art school experience. I was in shock, I froze, I complied.” Another reveals: “It’s 2011. A 40 yr old photographer sitting in Goa used to find 20 yr olds around the country (mostly Delhi) inviting them to come to his centre. There were a couple of incidents of him physically assaulting women. I was one of them. The other directors remained silent.” The post goes on to explain how the accused continues to “share his sexcapades with more 20 yr olds” and teaches pinhole photography techniques around Delhi.

Kolleri and Bhattacharya have yet to come forward and respond to their respective accusations. Das has vehemently denied the allegations against him, calling them “vulgar.” “I don’t know her, I have never met her,” he said about Garusha Katoch.

Ysabelle Cheung is ArtAsiaPacific’s managing editor.

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