Subodh Gupta files defamation suit against #MeToo survivor accounts, art community reacts

Updated: Oct 04, 2019, 08:27 IST | Benita Fernando | Mumbai

Art community reacts strongly to defamation suit by Subodh Gupta against #MeToo survivor accounts posted by @herdsceneand with signature campaign, appealing for protection of anonymity

Subodh Gupta
Subodh Gupta

On October 2, artists, scholars and arts professionals from across the world came together to support a statement condemning a civil defamation suit filed by leading Indian artist Subodh Gupta against Instagram account, @herdsceneand.

The statement, which started with 38 signatories and has now crossed 250, states that the suit is "an outright move to silence the survivors and gag the platform that gave them a voice while protecting their identities". The statement comes in the wake of the Delhi High Court's order to Facebook, the company that owns Instagram, to reveal the identity of the administrators of @herdsceneand, which posted anonymous allegations of sexual misconduct against Gupta in December 2018. The Delhi High Court has also ordered Facebook and Google to take down web pages that carry content related to the anonymous allegations.

NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati, a Kathmandu-based photographer and curator, says she signed the statement because she found Gupta's defamation suit "a gross abuse of power and money". The statement reiterates the need for art institutions to strengthen their policies and redressal systems for sexual harassment. Arts establishments in India are often managed by small teams, with little scope for an Internal Complaints Committee. However, since the #MeToo movement in the Indian art community last year, a few institutions have taken this matter more seriously. "We need to find ways to create safe spaces and platforms for survivors to come together, to share their truths and call for accountability," Kakshapati said.

#MeToo's naming and shaming has often been accompanied by a criticism of 'cancel culture'. Gupta has also sought Rs 5 cr as 'token' damages from @herdsceneand. According to a report in The Times of India, advocate Neoma Vasdev, who filed the plea for Gupta, stated that the artist has not been able to sell "even a single piece of art since the defamatory, baseless posts were made public". Gupta resigned as co-curator from Serendipity Arts Festival in 2018 following the allegations, but he was part of a group show at Palette Art Gallery, Delhi, in September this year, to celebrate 20 years of the gallery.

Furthermore, it appears that the Gupta brand value post #MeToo has barely taken a hit. His works, which have traditionally sold for some of the highest sums commanded by contemporary Indian artists, have continued to do so this year. At a sale by auction house Saffronart in March 2019, Gupta's Gober Ganesh sold for Rs 86.25 lakh; at a sale by auction house Christie's in New York in September 2019, Idol Thief I sold for USD87,500 (more than Rs 62 lakh). It will also be difficult to ascertain the sales made directly between artist and collector, given the informal nature of these transactions.

Nishant Shah, Vice-President Research at ArtEZ University of the Arts, The Netherlands, has come in support of the statement, which appeals for the anonymity of @herdsceneand to be protected. Shah, an expert on gender, sexuality, race and digital technologies, said, "A survivor's identity is their own prerogative. @herdsceneand is a collective of survivors and to out one will be out all, to identify one will be to identify all," he said, adding, "The suit is not just a gag on what can be said in the future, but its scrubbing clean the past and asking history to be revised."

He noted that by filing this suit, Gupta has put into motion the Streisand Effect, drawing more attention to the allegations through his attempt to curb them. "He will now be known as an artist who tried to stifle the voices of young women who fought for their rights." Some have also come in support of Gupta's right to defend himself from these anonymous allegations and that he has the right to seek to clear his name. However, Vidyun Sabhaney, a Delhi-based writer, artist and editor of graphic narratives, also a signatory of the statement, said, "To file a defamation suit that also seeks to forcibly reveal the identity of one's accusers and extract huge damages is not the equivalent of defending one's self. Rather it seems like punishment, and proves why survivors chose to remain anonymous, especially when the accused is powerful."

Shah believes that when it comes to digital correspondences, there are no one-on-one exchanges but "a stream of voices". "Digitally speaking, you can make a million copies [by screenshots, resharing or archiving]. The digital is made of proliferation and that's the strength that survivors rely on. So, to hold only the administrators of an anonymous account as responsible for 'defamation' is not possible," he said. mid-day reached out to Subodh Gupta on Whatsapp and email but he did not respond until the time of going to press.

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