When Modernism on the Ganges, a photo exhibition featuring the works of Indian photographer Raghubir Singh, opened at the Met Breuer in New York last December, it was accompanied by a protest by artist Jaishri Abichandani outside the museum. Abichandani alleged that the photographer, who died in 1999, had sexually assaulted her in 1995. She was 25 at the time and just starting her career in photography, she told an online arts magazine.
The same exhibition opened at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto on July 21, where it is accompanied by a display and a series of public engagements called #MeToo and The Arts that explore the intersection of the movement and museums.
There is a small display near the entrance of the Royal Ontario Museum, which includes a reprint of a news story of Abichandani’s allegations, as well as a timeline of #MeToo events related to the museum world. There is also a video installation featuring Canadian experts from the art world and anti-gender-violence advocates. Later this year, there will be several panel discussions, lectures and film screenings, including an “ROM Connects panel discussion with leaders in the arts on the role of cultural institutions in displaying art within the context of gender and power dynamics in the #MeToo and Time’s Up era”, according to a press release from the museum.
Modernism on the Ganges spans Singh’s entire career from the late 1960s to his last unpublished projects in the 1990s. Singh was widely considered to be one of India’s most visionary and celebrated photographers and this is the first exhibition of his work since his death. It showcases his signature style – arresting vignettes of Indian lives and landscapes in vivid colour.
While some critics have questioned whether visitors to the museum may be able to truly connect the frames between the #MeToo and The Arts display on the ground floor, which is free, and the ticketed Modernism and the Ganges exhibit located on the third floor, others point out that Abichandani’s allegations should invite viewers to consider Singh’s – and other celebrated photographers’ – works with a new lens.
Deepali Dewan, curator of South Asian Arts and Culture at Royal Ontario Museum, shares her views about the exhibition and its significance.
How did this particular exhibition of Raghubir Singh came to the Real Ontario Museum?
Modernism on the Ganges: Raghubir Singh Photographs is an exhibition organised by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Several years ago we were sent a proposal inviting us to host the exhibition as part of an exclusive tour. [Photography exhibits cannot be shown at more than a few venues since the images are light sensitive and so should not be on display straight for a long period of time.] We were excited about this retrospective of an important photographer, the first one since his death in the late 1990s. It was a way to make an intervention into the global history of photography, which still tends to be dominated by photographers from the West. We also wanted to showcase images of India that pushed against the touristic or ethnographic ones that tend to dominate in the western media. We will be hosting an exhibition on the royal arts of Jodhpur in 2019 and so also wanted to provide a historical balance by presenting a vision of modern India as well.
In your opinion what makes Raghubir Singh an important figure in the world of photography?
He made a contribution to the global history of photography as an innovative colour photographer, making images that can be categorised as street photography. This was at a time when other photographers were using only black and white and considered colour film too commercial or kitsch. His work captures a new way of making street photography, which brings together European modernism with South Asian visual modes in a unique way. His work is an important pivot within the history of Indian photography, linking photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson [who Singh took around India in the mid-1960s] from whom he learned [about the] “decisive moment”, to a new generation of photographers whom he mentored.
How did you first hear of the allegations against Singh? What was your reaction?
I first heard of the allegation against Raghubir Singh soon after the retrospective exhibition opened at The Met in October 2017. It was at the time the #MeToo movement, in its current manifestation, had just launched after allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein came to light. I felt shocked, confused and concerned.
You called Jaishri Abichandani. Why was reaching out to her important?
After we learned of the allegation against Singh, we spent some time figuring out whether we wanted to continue with the show. Had he still been alive and there was an active court case against him, we may not have. But since he was no longer alive, and we felt that the original reasons for doing the exhibit were still relevant, we turned to the question of how to do the exhibit. We felt we couldn’t do it without informing our visitors of the allegation.
We also wanted to use it as an opportunity to bring visibility to the issues around gender-based violence and the widespread nature of sexual harassment in the workplace that the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements had raised, and make a space for our audiences to have conversations around these important topics impacting their lives. Once we decided that, we reached out to numerous people in order to consult, learn, get advice about what that might look like. It was important to us to include Jaishri’s voice in that. So I reached out to her and she was kind enough to meet me in her Brooklyn home.
Can you tell us more about #MeToo and The Arts? Had the museum been thinking about this idea for a while or was it this specific exhibition that prompted the discussion?
#MeToo & the Arts is a display that was prompted by our decision to continue to host the exhibition. The display explores the intersection of the #MeToo movement and the arts. It acknowledges that museums are grappling with what to do when artists are accused of abuse of power or violence or artwork in the galleries as perceived as morally problematic. And we don’t pretend to know the answers. But as we are figuring it out, we want to give a space where others can learn and enter the discussion.
The display has a number of components: it informs visitors of Abichandani’s allegation against Singh in her own words and shows a timeline of what has been happening in the museum world since October 2017 to show how museums have been grappling with the issues raised by #MeToo and their various responses. It also has a video installation with clips from interviews with individuals in the arts and advocacy communities talking about #MeToo and the arts as a way to show multiple perspectives and start a civic conversation. There is also a seating area for rest and reflection as this display might bring up difficult feelings for some people, and it has clear signage with a list of local support services for survivors and their friends and family.
There have been questions around art and artists for a while now – on whether it is possible to appreciate the art but question its creator at the same time. What are your thoughts on this?
It is interesting that I have been asked this a lot lately. My thinking around this question has evolved and I have a layered answer. On the one hand, the very question comes out of a legacy of art criticism from the mid-20th century that said one can appreciate art for its pure formal qualities. This legacy has shaped the way we think and talk about art to such a degree that it feels natural now. And from this perspective, the answer is personal. It is really up to the individual viewer. Some can appreciate art despite what an artist has done, others have a difficult time looking at it.
But there is more to this question. Both art and artists come out of certain social, cultural, political, economic conditions; they are never produced in a vacuum. So one cannot separate art from the artist nor from the context they come out of. Thirdly, I do feel the question is the wrong one. It puts too much focus on an individual artist, as if removing them solves the problem. It distracts from what I think is the core issue: a systemic abuse of power and violence against women. All art and artists are part of systemic power dynamics, ways of thinking and being that have been normalised. To start to change that, we need to address the systemic abuses of power in all its forms.