Modernism on the Ganges, the posthumous retrospective of Indian photographer Raghubir Singh’s stirring, colourful photographs, seemed a perfect fit for the Royal Ontario Museum.
Here was a towering practitioner of contemporary photography who pushed back against conventional wisdom: that the medium and its innovations were entirely owned by the West, whether in Europe by such figures as Henri Cartier-Bresson or Eugène Atget, or in America with luminaries such as Edward Weston and Robert Frank.
Raghubir Singh, Ganapati Immersion, Chowpatty, Bombay, Maharashtra, 1989 (Courtesy Royal Ontario Museum)
For the ROM, with its priority on presenting global culture beyond the narrowcast notion of Europe and its colonies, the show made sense in every possible way. Until, suddenly, it didn’t. With Modernism at the Ganges on view at the Met Breuer in December, Jaishri Abichandani, a Brooklyn-based artist, organized a protest at the New York museum. Singh had invited her to India in 1995 to work as his assistant and once there, she alleged, he sexually assaulted her.
It presented a quandary to both the Met and the ROM, but also to countless other institutions accustomed in past eras to brushing aside an uncomfortable question: What to do when great art is made by potentially bad people.
“I flip-flopped on a daily basis,” said Deepali Dewan, the ROM’s curator of South Asian Art and Culture. Dewan had advocated for bringing the show here before the allegations arose,and was stuck with a dilemma that went beyond professional concerns.
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“One of the things I thought about a lot was, ‘What’s to be gained from cancelling it? Are we trying to avoid the conversation?’ As a woman, I completely and emotionally get the impulse to eliminate, to erase. And I feel it, too. But if we’re going to bring visibility to gender violence in the arts, what does it mean to not do it? As a curator working for a public institution, I felt the most important question was, ‘How do we create a space for discussion?’ And to do that, going the hard route is sometimes necessary.”
After several rounds of consultation with members of the South Asian community, groups working with victims of sexual violence, Singh’s family and Abichandani herself, the ROM decided to make that space. Last week, it announced the Singh exhibition would be accompanied with a display, free and open to the public, called #Metoo and the Arts. Both are opening July 21.
The display remains a work in progress. The Canadian Press reported that Abichandani was pressing the museum to use the term “rape” when describing Singh’s alleged assault; the ROM’s preliminary materials used the more anodyne term “sexual harassment,” though Abichandani said she would support the display whether or not they agreed on the terms.
But simply cancelling the show — one of the options tabled — didn’t sit right with anyone, said ROM director Josh Basseches.
“I think we all felt that would be a rather anemic way to think about the issues,” he said. “Someone having been responsible for morally objectionable behaviour doesn’t make their influence as an artist, or a teacher, go away.
“I think what I and other museum directors … have to acknowledge with respect to the issues at hand — in this case, sexual abuse — is the question of how we share with audiences the fact that there are other lenses you need to look through. And bringing those additional layers adds dimensionality to our understanding of art, culture and history.”
Basseches explained that the Singh circumstance gave the museum not only a dilemma, but an opportunity to broaden its presentation beyond the simple canonization such shows typically intend.
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“I think if (we ask) questions like, ‘Could a woman be in the same place to take those photographs? What are the power dynamics that allow one artist to do something and not another?’ ” he said. “It could be class, it could be gender. All these things push our understanding of how art is made into new territory, recognizing we need to expand and increase the voices that are telling these stories.”
Not every institution has been so swift to embrace the rapid social shift. In January, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., abruptly cancelled a career retrospective of the celebrated painter Chuck Close after allegations of sexual harassment from some of the artist’s portrait models were made public. At Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, the photographer Nicholas Nixon’s career survey was suspended midstream and then removed from the walls early after allegations of sexually inappropriate behaviour toward his students at the Massachusetts College of Art were revealed in the Boston Globe (Nixon himself advocated for the show’s removal once the allegations came to light).
Dot Tuer, the acting director of the graduate program for OCAD University’s department of criticism and curatorial practice, has watched as movements such as #MeToo and the broader forces of coming to grips with colonial history have sparked radical rethinks of long-entrenched museum practice.
“Museums, by their nature, are risk-averse places,” Tuer said. “That’s why it’s important to support the ROM in an initiative like this. It’s a brave thing to do, because you don’t know where it will take you.”
Sexual impropriety, of course, has long been a feature of art of all eras, particularly on the part of male artists, who in most cases have either had such transgressions largely ignored or in some cases tacitly celebrated as a hedonistic element essential to creative fire. Pablo Picasso, an infamous womanizer who abused some of his lovers — he once described women as “machines for suffering” — has himself suffered no tarnish to either his legacy or his auction prices. Egon Schiele, a celebrated Modern painter from Austria, was jailed for statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl, though he was later acquitted. (He was convicted of exposing underage children who posed naked in his studio.)
Brooklyn-based artist Jaishri Abichandani has accused the late street photographer Raghubir Singh of rape. (Jaishri Abichandan)
Not acknowledging the brutalities associated with such artists does a disservice both to their victims and our understanding of art more broadly, said Alison Syme, a professor of Modern art history at the University of Toronto.
“Instead of hagiographic displays, we can have exhibitions that grapple with the complexities of the work and challenge our cultural investment in stories of male artistic genius and power,” she said. “And it’s vital that more diverse artists, historical as well as contemporary, are shown and accorded critical and scholarly attention; that different stories get told.”
Picasso and Schiele are but two of many artists whose works are broadly represented and coveted in museums around the world with no such context typically offered. Another, Paul Gauguin, whose fame is drawn principally from his romantic images of Polynesian women in idyllic scenes in the South Pacific, has proven to be the litmus test of the art world’s moral fibre in recent years. An acknowledged pedophile who wed Polynesian girls (several) as young as 12 years old, dooming many of them to death from syphilis, Gauguin’s transgressions cast him as an art world black sheep.
Celebrated Indian photographer Raghubir Singh (courtesy Jhaveri Contemporary)
That hasn’t meant reprisal so much as less frequent canonization. The Tate, in London, hosted a retrospective in 2010, the first in 50 years, with no mention of his sexual predation; the Art Institute of Chicago offered a more incisive look at the artist last year, largely excluding his South Pacific phase with a show that “neither condemns nor excuses” his behaviour, read a review in the New York Times.
Neither censorship nor quiet reverence accomplishes much good, Tuer says.
“People struggle with the idea that art as a cultural product is not subject to the interplay between the subject and the person who made it,” she said. “How do we open things up so that one element doesn’t exclude the other? It can be tough, but it’s also a way for these institutions to actually make themselves relevant to the current moment.”
While they remain sparse, such efforts do appear. At the Manchester Art Gallery, the artist Sonia Boyce convened an event in February where Hylas and the Nymphs, a renowned 19th-century painting by the British artist John William Waterhouse, was removed and put into storage.
The painting depicts Hylas, Hercules’ lover, being seduced by a bevy of naked water nymphs, which would lead to his death by drowning. It raised for Boyce a question: “What is beautiful to some people may appear to others to represent a problematic and pejorative system,” she wrote in The Guardian. “In relation to the 19th-century galleries under discussion, for example, are there other narratives than the female subject as a deathly siren (the femme fatale) or as a submissive object to be looked at?”
Boyce wrote that, “Some museums — I suppose the type I am most interested in — consider the museum as a place to explore new meanings and to forge new relationships between people and art. In my mind, the past never sits still and contemporary art’s job is increasingly about exploring how art intersects with civic life.”
Raghubir Singh, On Vivekananda Rock, Kanya, Kumari, Tamil Nadu, 1994 (Courtesy Royal Ontario Museum)
She would surely find some kinship with today’s ROM. “How do we ensure we’re at the forefront of civic discussion in a real and relevant way?” Basseches asked. “That’s where we want to be situated. We’re looking at how we can grow comfortable in that role, accepting that if we navigate it too cleanly then we’re probably being too safe.”
Dewan is surely on board for that not being the case. “I’ve never had the luxury to eliminate and erase, but I’ve been able to include new narratives in how I tell stories about works of art,” she said, when asked about how to intervene in a long-static canon forgiving of many sins. “If you’re telling the same story about any artist that you were five years ago, you’re probably telling the wrong story.
“I’m not an advocate of adding asterisks to labels,” she added. “I’m an advocate of rewriting the labels completely.”
Modernism on the Ganges: Raghubir Singh Photographs and #Metoo & the Arts will open on July 21.
Murray Whyte is the Star’s art critic based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @untitledtoronto
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