Ghosts of #MeToo come back to haunt Kochi Biennale

Kochi-Muziris Biennale co-founder Riyas Komu (L) with poet K. Satchidanandan. (Photo source: Facebook/Riyas Komu)

Months after its co-founder Riyas Komu stepped down following allegations of sexual harassment, the ghosts of the #Metoo movement had come back to haunt the Kochi-Muziris Biennale with several members of the Indian art world seeking transparency on the investigation in a collective statement.

After a gathering of 50 odd artists, curators, gallerists, writers, patrons, and visitors on the night of December 13 at Vasco da Gama Square here, a collective statement was read out befittingly after the Guerilla Girls performance on Friday.

The artists et al gathered to address the "elephant in the room" and engage in an "open conversation about MeToo" while seeking to create a safe and proactive community and wider solidarity in the cultural sphere, without intending "to malign anyone or any institution".

The need for a conversation about MeToo also became opportune as allegations of repeated sexual misconduct surfaced against high-profile contemporary artist Subodh Gupta on Thursday.

One of the key concerns raised at the gathering was the Kochi Biennale Foundation (KBF) making available a timeline by which the inquiries in Komu's case were expected to yield results.

Manoj Nair, Editorial Director of the foundation, told PTI that though the organisation had received "no formal complaint" so far, Lizzie Jacob, Chair of the ICC (Internal Complaints Committee), had been appointed to seek out and receive complaints.

"Progress has been made on this matter, and the process is ongoing. On the basis of the complaint, the Trust will authorise an independent inquiry into the matter," Nair said.

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale, which started on December 12, from the very first day was marred with instances to stir the unease in the art community.

Many visitors attending the art event said a sense of "unease" and "discomfort" was triggered when Bose Krishnamachari, another co-founder of the festival, thanked Komu and said that he "missed" him during the flag hoisting ceremony.

"The fact that the Biennale foundation has not effectively and transparently communicated regarding allegations against one of its founders, whose name came up casually in several speeches and ceremonies, created a sense of unease that needed to be publicly addressed before everyone departs," archivist and curator Rattanamol Singh Johal told PTI.

Komu was also allegedly spotted in and around the festival venues.

Nair, however, insisted that the organisation had a "zero tolerance policy" for all its employees including volunteers and temporary staff, and that Komu was acknowledged by the foundation "only once" in the capacity of a "co-founder".

"Other than that he was mentioned by other speakers who were guests at functions and were not representing KBF, for example: Professor KV Thomas, Member of Parliament, mentioned him once in his speech," Nair said.

Before the gathering at the Vasco da Gama Square, Anita Dubey, the curator of this year's Biennale, was allegedly approached by a couple of these individuals seeking permission to hold a dialogue addressing concerns regarding sexual violence in the Pavillion, a Biennale venue created to be a free space for conversation and dialogue, but were "discouraged".

"Some of us actually did approach the Biennale but looking at the apathy towards the accusations (against Komu and Gupta), the fact that nobody seemed to care was troubling," writer and art critic Rosalyn D'mello said.

Dubey, however, did tell them that if a proposal was drafted, the conversation could be organised at a later time during the course of the 108-day-long art event, leading the individuals to host a more immediate gathering at a non-Biennale venue.

A text message -- "Hi Kochi, let's address the elephant in the room. If you are interested in engaging in an open conversation about MeToo or just want to come together to address concerns regarding sexual violence and our shared vulnerabilities, please join in at Vasco da Gama Square tonight (13 December)" -- that was sent out spread like wild fire, and in a matter of an hour Vasco da Gama Square was bubbling with anxious voices desperate for the slightest ray of hope.

"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 direct address of unresolved concerns around sexual misconduct and vulnerability within a hierarchical work place," curator, researcher, and writer Natasha Ginwala, told PTI.

Following the announcement of the statement on Friday, Dubey said, "Thank you, this proves that we can have a space for insurrection."

The lack of faith in "anonymity" was another fear that resonated at the Vasco da Gama square, subsequently spilling onto the "intervention" the following morning.

Artist and curator Vidisha said she was "critical" of the indifferent attitude towards anonymous complaints, and the attempts by powerful individuals in the art world to silence any voice against them or their "friends".

"The accused still have networks and friends that try and silence any voice raising an issue or speaking against them. The commercial position of the art world has always been apolitical, and not really accountable or committed to its society. So they perform the silencing in their practice as well.

"Many also don't believe in anonymous accounts, or consider harassment only when it is physical. Anonymity is a very powerful tool to dismantle the most powerful institutions. And we should support it," she told PTI.

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