Sunday, 3 July 2011

Art Asia Pacific Magazine I Hemant Sareen I On the Boycott of the Tel Aviv Museum show on India I interview with Pushpamala N. I July 2011


HS: Were you aware of your inclusion in the show before you received a formal invitation?

PN: Curator Tami Freiman contacted my gallery, Chemould Prescott Road in Mumbai about wanting some of my work for a show in Tel Aviv. Since I had not heard about the show, I wrote to her and asked her for a concept note and list of artists, as I think it is very important to know the context of an exhibition. In fact at that time I was interested in going to Israel if I got the opportunity to see for myself what the situation was. When I read the concept note I realized that it was an official state show in the Tel Aviv Museum and did not want to participate. I also have problems with the concept.

HS: Did you have time to think about your decision? Did you consult other participating artists?

PN: It was my decision to decline the show and call the other artists to join me in a boycott. I thought about it and felt it was right.  It’s also that I am in Bangalore now and most of the artists are in Delhi or Mumbai.  The joke is that some of the artists I spoke to from the curator’s list were mystified as they didn’t even know about the show!

HS: How many have boycotted the show?

PN: Artists Anita Dube, Amar Kanwar, and myself, from the present curators list, have declined to show. But some others like Nalini Malani refused much earlier without going public. Ashok Sukumaran wrote that he had been approached too. I decided to go public to put the issue in the public sphere. The curators have been approaching artists since several months it seems. Several people from the art world have written their support for us in a short time.

HS: You are boycotting the show in support of the Palestinian Civil Society Movement's  BDS campaign. Is there any personal reason or is it a more impersonal and humanitarian motivation that made you boycott the show?

PN: I hope you are not trying to trivialize the issue. There is no personal reason! 

I believe in the boycott as a non-violent strategy to bring about change. The Palestinian movement is inspired by the earlier International boycott against Apartheid South Africa which finally led to sanctions and brought about the dismantling of the apartheid system. The most famous boycott however, was the Non-Co-operation Movement of Mahatma Gandhi against the British, which led to Indian Independence and has inspired all other boycotts since! Nelson Mandela and the ANC adopted these methods for South Africa and Martin Luther King for the Civil Rights movement in America. But I am not naïve to think that anything is instant. Every action is a step or a building block.

I am one of the signatories of the India campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. To clarify some confusions about it, the Boycott is addressed at mainstream and state institutions complicit with state policy and not individuals. It exists so far as the Israeli state continues with its illegal apartheid policies and recognises the rights of the indigenous Palestinian people, it is not for all time, obviously. I would like to continue to have a long term relationship with the Palestinian groups and maybe work out some projects in the art world.

HS: Critics of your boycott remind you of other countries and regimes with equally bad human rights records, China for instance, where Indian artists are regularly featured. How would you respond to that?

PN: Critics of my boycott start with the US and Europe and then go on to China! People are mistaking this as taking a high moral ground and show of moral displeasure. The call for boycott, as I have mentioned is a collective strategy to bring about change in a worst case scenario, it is not about so called “good people” punishing some “bad people” for their “ bad deeds”. It is of course based on sympathy and support for the desperate and unchanging scene there. 

Recently, there was an international petition protesting against the Chinese government’s arrest of Ai Wei Wei, which many of us signed. However, neither Ai Wei Wei nor any Chinese artists or groups, have sent an international Boycott call. In fact Ai Wei Wei had worked just before that for the Beijing Olympics. Artists have a complex relationship there with the government, are critical, but also probably disinclined towards outside interference, just as the Iranian people are wary, or we are. 

In this case, I would have refused individually anyway, but I made a general call to the artists in response and in solidarity with an existing movement. I would be careful about playing God and asking for boycotts left and right, unless there was a credible movement. By the way, 100 artists from Canada and 150 from Ireland have signed the PACBI boycott call earlier, besides many popular musicians and groups worldwide cancelling concerts there.

Why is it that in the case of so called rogue countries boycotted by the west, the action is taken for granted, while Israel which is breaking all international laws has so much sympathy?

HS: What would you say to those Indian artists still insisting on participating in the show?

PN: I think it is each one’s individual choice. Everybody is thinking about it and each artist will have their own opinion. One thing is sure:  there has been a lot of debate generated, and still going on. I get several letters everyday, each with different positions. I welcome argument; it galvanizes the art scene when it is in danger of becoming soporific. Didn’t Amartya Sen write a book called “The Argumentative Indian”?!

Earlier, the India campaign had asked writers and musicians to boycott their invitations, but there was no response. It is a measure of the liveliness of the Indian art scene and Indian artists sincerity that there is so much discussion going on. 

And have you noticed something? For the last decade the only public discussion about Indian art was art market, prices and auctions. Now suddenly everyone is talking about the Palestine issue! Isn’t that interesting? 

HS: Has the Ministry of Culture been in touch with you on this issue?

PN: No, why should they? Sounds Kafkaesque. It is my right to agree or refuse to participate in any event. And this is a funny question because part of the argument against cultural boycott is that the cultural is separate from the political!

Pushpamala N.