Monday, June 1, 2015

Pirates of the Queer-ebean : About the Myena and Vibhu Faceoff.

(An exhibition in progress at Engendered, New Delhi)

“When the market won’t express something, pirates will. Pirates acting in the own self interest and in the interest of their communities are today some of the most ruthless innovators on the planet.”
                                                 -The Pirate’s Dilemma by Matt Mason (Free Press, New York 2008)

If Walter Benjamin was curious about the originality of a work of art during the days of mechanical reproduction as was possible in 1940s, Matt Mason, in the new millennium speaks of the copy right violator’s dilemma. With the excessive availability of ideas and forms in the form of software and products, creative thinkers/artists do not know where to copy from or how to alter it. Brilliant and clever amongst them would work on the same towards their own self interest and come out with the most stunning ideas and products. Copying/plagiarism and innovating/altering beyond belief are two different things today. When it is not altered beyond recognition, there are all the possibilities of people crying foul as aloud as possible. But the creative pirates do not stop there. Responding to the innovative faculties of the creative pirates, many corporate houses have created open sources (software) and some creative artists have brought out copy left theory. Nina Paley, the animator and film maker is a champion for copy left (free copy right movement) movement. In our daily lives too so many file sharing and downloading software methods force the original producers to release their products online before they actually hit the material market. It is a changing world.

Myena Mukherjee, the director of a Delhi based queer gender organisation (an organisation that stands strong for different sexual orientations) seems to have turned a sudden traditionalist when it came to a show that she had curated in 2013 and its matured versions in the following years in three different cities in India, namely Delhi, Chennai and Mumbai. The show that was titled ‘Wall of Solidarity’, in which the artists contributed one foot by one foot works showing solidarity with gender parity demands of the organisation. To cut the story short, now the curator has gone to court against Vibhuraj Kapoor, the director of a Mumbai based gallery, Gallery Beyond ( incidentally which was the venue of the exhibition’s Mumbai leg) for violating copy right of her show. The show is currently being held in Mumbai (or just finished, I am not sure) as a collateral to the queer gender film festival (KMQIFF) is/was at the Gallery Beyond and according to Myena Mukherjee, it is a ‘commercial’ venture and her idea has been cannibalized by Mr.Kapoor without her permission. The Kapoor hosted show is curiously titled ‘3771919 Wall’. I do not know what it means (It must mean something or nothing). A hurt curator goes on to say that Mr.Kapoor has not only lifted her idea but also her display strategies. 

(Book cover of Matt Mason's book)

I do not know Vibhuraj Kapoor too closely. I have visited his gallery a couple of times. I do not know Myena Mukherjee at all though I have been following her mails and posts in social networks. Hence, my interest in the case is only that of a curious onlooker who has been working as an art critic and curator for almost two and half decades. According to me, this was an avoidable controversy. On the human level, Vibhuraj Kapoor was her collaborator for the same concept in 2014. Hence, she should have avoided a public confrontation and an eventual litigation. Okay, nowadays who cares much for human sentiments? Let’s take it a bit intellectually and in a matter of fact manner. How could the ‘Wall’ concept be Myena Mukherjee’s own concept? There have been hundred and one wall art projects before and after the Nirbhaya issue. So by calling her project ‘Wall of Solidarity’, going by her own argument, she herself was infringing upon someone else’s right to have a copy right. Two, the format of one foot by one foot is a universal thing; was she violating another copy right? While arguing her case, she says that Mr.Kapoor misled a few artists and coaxed them to participate in the show and to make matters worse, he even threatened them using bad language.

Myena has a supporter in Georgina Maddox, a former journalist turned art writer and curator. She, in all right earnest, brings a few people as witnesses and quotes them in her article published in  One of the artists in his facebook page even thanked the writer for brining the issue in public as he was ‘forced to be a part of the show’. I remember the story of two servants when I was living a rich man’s house for a couple of months. One night, on hearing a commotion in the kitchen at midnight, I went there to check and found those two boys grabbing each other’s balls and necks. They released each other and one of them told me very politely. “Sir, aap jaanta hai mein kitna accha banda hun. Yeh ladka, dekho mere ko bhi pila ke rakha hai.” (Sir, you know well how well mannered I am. But, look at him, he made me drink alcohol). I could not suppress my laughter. How could one make another drink forcefully, especially both of them are servants in the same house and both of them are grown up enough to understand what drinking means? This artist sounds exactly like that servant. “If you have not published this article, this bad man Kapoor would have exhibited my works. You saved me.” He did not say this but this is what I heard when I read his status update in facebook with a link to the DNA article.

(Myena Mukherjee, director of Engendered)

The director of Engendered argues that in the first edition of her show (RESIST), many of the major artists have participated. Good. It is almost like a Dalit activist saying, “You see, my protest was appreciated by the Brahmin priest in the temple.” Myena runs a queer gender platform. But the mainstream artists are not so queer to accept the queerness of the queer (I know most of them personally). They have agreed to exhibit on this platform because they thought they were supporting a cause and also such causes are fashionable enough to bring a lot of press attention. None makes exhibitions on child labour, acid attack survivors (some photographers do). If at all such exhibitions are conducted, they are done by industrialists' wives who will auction the works for charity and occupy more page three space than the spaces in the minds of their beneficiaries. Okay, even if these artists strongly believe in queer sexuality, when they give a work for the cause, those are accepted as works of art which have commercial viability. But then, why and how, Gallery Beyond becomes a pariah (from the brahminical exclusivity of the Engendered, I cannot help saying it) and so hateful as far as Myena and artists are concerned? Does the issue change when the platform changes? Does the gravity of queerness change when a heterosexual gallerist does the show? If we go by the argument, how can heterosexual and the artists who enjoy social success and mainstream adulation contribute to this and Myena could accept? If she could, why couldn’t Kapoor? Why it is not commercial when it is with Myena and commercial with Vibhu Kapoor? I do not understand? If Krishna Chandan exhibits Raqs Media collective, will they lose their intellectual sheen? Or if they refuse to exhibit and accept an invitation from Peter Nagy, what exactly helps them make that choice?

I have not seen both the shows. But I find the whole issue very childish. Maddox has quoted Ina Puri in her article. I do not understand what is Ina Puri’s credibility as an art critic? Ms.Puri talks about fakes in art scene. Can we collate the issue of faking with the issue of copy right or copy left? Coming to the issue of faking, can someone really stand up and say the number of Husains and Souzas sold every other season at the well established auction houses are fakes? Why the critics are not explicit on the ghosts of Husains and Souzas and Bawas churning out paintings even after their demises and them getting authenticated? It is easy to shoot a Vibhuraj Kapoor. Sometimes the bullets can be quite suicidal also. Balbir Krishan and Satadru Sovan criticise Kapoor. But their words should be taken as the signs of friendship and allegiance.

 (Vibhu Kapoor, Director of Gallery Beyond Mumbai)

This issue is very simple. Myena should have let the show happen without any fuss. She should have smiled and let it go. Also she should tell herself three times a day that she is not a great curator or something only because she runs a queer platform called Engendered. I do not have any problem with Myena because I do not know the person or I do not have any reason to have a grudge against her. But this issue sounds too childish and I thought of giving a friendly advice. It will backfire in the court because other than the context and complexion, the shows are fundamentally different and it could be proved. I remember me doing two interesting projects in 2008-09 and in 2012. The first one was called ‘Video Wednesdays @ Gallery Espace’. One of the most discussed projects in Indian contemporary art scene, this year long show gave some dignity to the video artists in India. However, when the second edition happened, I was not even consulted once. I decided to let it go. In 2012, I did the first edition of the United Art Fair. A phenomenal fair, but it went into drains by the second edition and the reasons are well known to all. I kept quiet there too. Gender issues are much graver than a show at Gallery Beyond or at Engendered. They need different kinds of addressing.

I will conclude this article with a quote from the Pirate's Dilemma by Matt Mason: “Acting like a pirate- taking value from the market, or creating new spaces outside of the market and giving it back to the community, whether it is with free open software source or selling cheap Starbury sneakers- is a great way to serve public interests and a great way to make an authentic connection to a new audience.”

Both Myena Mukherjee and Vibhuraj Kapoor are pirates. Or I want to believe so. 

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