THE CITIZEN BUREAU | 6 SEPTEMBER, 2019
The Resilience of Artist Riyas Komu, #MeToo Accused
Delhi Contemporary Art Week is driven by seven galleries, all of them led by women
NEW DELHI: Last September Riyas Komu, an artist and co-founder of the Kochi Muziris Biennale, faced scathing accusations from at least two women for having made non-consensual sexual advances.
One survivor alleged on the Instagram page Scene and Herd that Komu “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.”
The page is run anonymously to record and report “one predator and power play at a time” as it says, and has brought to light allegations against artists Subhodh Gupta and Jatin Das and Sotheby’s head Gaurav Bhatia, among other luminaries in the art world so called.
After the allegations of sexual misconduct, Komu stepped down from all management positions he occupied and apologised publicly for his actions. Earlier he had issued a statement in support of the MeToo movement:
“As an artist who is committed to social and political causes, I support the #MeToo movement that has disrupted the prevailing structures of authority and created ways for representing previously suppressed voices.”
The Vadehra Art Gallery in the city still represents Riyas Komu and has featured his work in the ongoing third edition of Delhi Contemporary Art Week, on till September 7. The gallery is showcasing a portrait of a woman by Komu. New York pop artist Jeff Koons’ work is featured alongside Komu’s this year.
DCAW has in recent years become an arts property, and features prized selections of contemporary art in Delhi. It is driven by seven galleries, all of them led by women.
Last month the Gallery Sumukha in Bangalore opened Komu’s solo show titled ‘Out of Place’, which marked the artist’s return to Bangalore after 15 years of travelling the world with exhibitions at prominent venues like the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Helsinki Art Institute.
Many believed the highly intellectualised arts community would stand together to condemn such predatory behaviour. The poetics were certainly on its side.
But much to everyone’s surprise, in an act of complete de-escalation, when the KMB opened in December last year, Komu’s colleague and friend Bose Krishnamachari (co-founder of the KMB) declared how much he missed his friend Komu at the opening.
This fourth edition of the KMB was curated by Anita Dube, a woman and artist, who stood silently by as Krishnamachari spoke with fondness of his friend, mere weeks after the allegations were made.
A collective gasp took the air, as standing in the audience were several women who had either watched Komu make “advances” of this sort, or had been victims themselves of his power play sometimes resulting in sexual misconduct.
Appalled at the insensitive mention, a group of artists, writers, gallerists, advisors and administrators of the arts soon set up a secret meeting. WhatsApp messages were sent to everyone at the Biennale and a late-night meeting was held, led by curators such as Natasha Ginwala and art writer Rosalyn D’Mello, and attended by senior artists such as Vibha Galhotra, Dayanita Singh and gallerists like Shireen Gandhy and Bhavna Kakar.
Men and women shared their concerns about the management’s mention of an alleged serial perpetrator whose actions had yet to undergo an inquiry. They concluded the meeting with a set of questions announced the following day, after the performance by feminist activist artists the Guerilla Girls.
The statement reads:
“We are collectively moved by the propositions grounded in artistic works of this Biennale edition.
And its declaration to listen and enrich our solidarity through extra-institutional conversations that take place as a community.
In this spirit we have a set of questions to share.
Who are members of the KHM ICC (Internal Complaints Committee) currently? Have all workers (including volunteers and all temporary staff) of the organisation been informed about the committee, its role and scope of activities?
Is the investigation of Riyas Komu underway? What is the timeline for this investigation to be completed?
Will the investigating body at KMB and other cultural organisations take measures to protect the anonymity and safety of the survivors who come forward to provide testimony?
Can individual stakeholders within the art world commit to a zero-tolerance policy in their institutional spaces and across spheres of cultural activity?
What could the potential next steps be to ensure sustained action and safer spaces within the art world for the marginalised, disenfranchised and for women?
We are seeking to create a safe and proactive community and wider solidarity in the cultural sphere, and the intention is not to malign anyone or any institution. These are the questions we came with, and we would encourage you to take them forward.”
Despite the community’s efforts during the Biennale to reprimand the offences of a fellow artist, on closing day the KMB Foundation announced that its Internal Complaints Committee chaired by former Kerala chief secretary Lizzie Jacob had recommended the inquiry be dropped:
“Since no complaint was forthcoming after pursuing the matter for several weeks, the ICC recommended the dropping of the inquiry suggested by the Foundation. This recommendation has been examined and has been accepted by the board of trustees at its meeting today. We look forward to Riyas Komu resuming his roles at the KMB Foundation.”
Komu did not rejoin the Foundation. He wrote to them complaining about their handling of the matter, which he said caused him emotional distress, and directly accused Anita Dube of “preventing him from executing his duties as Director of Programmes.”
Such cases are only symptoms of a much broader, systemic form of abuse and exploitation of young professional cultural workers in the Indian art scene. It suggests that the mechanisms of oppression and toxic superiority of the privileged fuel institutions such as the KMB.
The lack of complaints received by the ICC is suspect, given the reaction the early allegations against Komu generated during the Biennale’s opening.
For the Sumukha Gallery and Vadehra Art Gallery to display Komu’s work, indicates wilful amnesia about the artist’s transgressions, and a double-thinking submissiveness to his market value.
The community’s protest, eloquent but short lived, seems to have died an instituted death, with Komu’s canvases burying past stories to reappear in the market realm.
Komu has been a constant feature at auction houses in the past and continues to develop his body of work. His language has always been explicitly sociopolitical, with dramatic canvases on Gandhi, Ambedkar, the oppressed and other compelling subjects.
Note: This article was edited on September 16 following a rejoinder from the Kochi Biennale Foundation. Neither allegation against Riyas Komu on the Instagram page Scene and Herd purports to have been made by a former employee of the Foundation. We apologise for stating this as confirmed fact.
Regarding the absence of formal complaints against Komu, we received the following clarification:
"Since the allegation made in the media naming Riyas Komu was made anonymously, the board of the Kochi Biennale Foundation entrusted the chair of the ICC, former Chief Secretary of the Government of Kerala, Lizzie Jacob, to proactively seek the complaint on the basis of which further inquiry could be made. She got in touch with the complainant through the journalist at the Indian Express who had authored the story. Her anonymity was protected, and only other details relevant to the complaint were sought. After a conversation that lasted weeks, her lawyer wrote to the chair of the ICC that she would not file a complaint. This was communicated to the board and the inquiry was discontinued."
Cover image: ‘Witness’ by Riyas Komu