Wednesday, 1 May 2013

TAKE - Residencies I Issue 11 I May 2013

The Phantom Lady Strikes Again
May 15th every year is commemorated by Palestinians as Nakba Day, or the Day of the Catastrophe – the displacement that followed the creation of Israel in 1948. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were expelled or fled, and hundreds of Palestinian villages were destroyed. In continuing decades of injustices, blockades and disempowerments, Palestine remains the last bastion of colonialism.

In a situation where the Indian government is collaborating militarily and strategically with Israel, the Phantom Lady looks at the response of the Indian art world to the Palestinian issue. She believes this is a touchstone to our relationship to the much discussed “global”.


Last year, at the seminar “ To Let the World In” at Art Chennai, critic Ranjit Hoskote lamented that Indian artists had not responded to the “Arab Spring” – the string of student and citizen protests against their dictatorial regimes that recently extended across the Arab world and to Europe and America. This was supposed to be a measure of our international involvement, of letting the world “in”. I was just curious as to why he had not responded in any way (either in support or disagreement) to the call for boycotting the major Indian show Deconstructing India at the Tel Aviv Museum in Israel some months before, which created a flurry of debate and discussion in the Indian art world on email, facebook and blogs, with prominent coverage in the newspapers.

The debate was an important landmark, as for the last many years the only discussion about Indian art in the public domain has been about the art market, prices and auctions- and suddenly everybody in the art world was talking about the Palestinian issue. In fact it is a matter of pride that the much maligned art fraternity has been the only one which has collectively engaged with the issue, in sharp contrast our literary, music, film or dance practitioners.

The International Call for Boycott
The Call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) was issued on July 9, 2005, one year after the historic Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice, declared that Israel's Wall built on occupied Palestinian territory was illegal. Palestinian groups called upon international civil society organizations and people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel, similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era - until Israel meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people's inalienable right to self-determination, and complies with international law. BDS has been endorsed by over 170 Palestinian parties, organizations, trade unions and movements representing the Palestinian people in the 1967 and 1948 territories and in the diaspora. On July 13, 2005 the UN International Civil Society Conference adopted the Palestinian Call for BDS.

Palestinian intellectuals and artists have asked cultural figures internationally not to show or perform in Israel, to delegitimize and isolate the government and to protest against the building up of Brand Israel as a glamourous cultural destination. The boycott is against complicit institutions and not against individuals.

The Boycott has gained momentum all over the world after the Israeli military attack on the Gaza Peace Flotilla in 2010. Leading figures like John Berger are active in the movement while well-known musicians, artists and writers have refused to accept invitations to perform in Israel. A hundred artists in Toronto and a hundred and fifty in Dublin have signed the Boycott call, while Left and anti- Zionist Jewish groups internationally have been vocally opposed to Zionist fundamentalism and have been working for a peaceful solution to the Palestinian issue.

Boycotts within Israel
Within Israel as well, cultural figures revolted by the rising fascism of the state to Palestinian rights are increasingly protesting about performing or showing in occupied territories, braving a new law that penalizes boycotts harshly.  For example, more than fifty prominent Israeli actors, directors and playwrights had issued a petition declaring their refusal to perform in the state-financed theatres in Ariel deep within illegally occupied territories in the West Bank because they say the settlement violates international law and hinders the Israel-Palestine peace process. Some time ago, The Hindu newspaper reported protests against the upgradation of a University in Ariel where a hundred and forty five  academics announced a boycott of the establishment saying that “Ariel is not part of the sovereign territory of Israel”. Building institutions in occupied lands is a well- worn ploy by the Israeli state to legitimize illegal possession of land.

Indian Artists Boycott
In 2011, when some of us invited artists decided to publicly boycott the Indian show Deconstructing India planned for the new wing of the Tel Aviv Museum and gave a general call for the other artists to join us, it resulted in a wide debate in the art world and it would be interesting here to recapitulate some of the criticisms and arguments.

Some artists argued that we should keep cultural spaces separate from politics. However, the curatorial note of “Deconstructing Israel” was itself political. It spoke of colonization, partition of India and creation of Israel which are all political events. The artists were chosen by the curators because we “deconstruct stereotypes”. We deconstruct stereotypes not for fun or interior decor, but to make a political, institutional and social critique. Indian artists are making works on political subjects like global and national economic exploitation, poverty, rights of farmers and workers and minorities, religious intolerance, gender and sexuality, and ecology, often using directly political material in their work. Many of us have been involved in protests and agitations, write eloquently on various public issues, and worked to support and build alternate spaces and platforms outside formal institutions to express our voice. In fact, many Indian artists are invited internationally to show in biennales and important exhibitions precisely because they are making “political’ work.  And the Tel Aviv Museum itself was hardly a neutral cultural space. It was in the Independence Hall in the museum in 1948 that David ben Gurian, the architect of Israel, formally proclaimed the State of Israel in a ceremony, a parallel to Nehru’s speech at the Red Fort.  It is called part of the “central hub of Hebrew culture” which by definition leaves out Palestinian culture!

Many artists felt that boycotts would paralyse their practice and that all governments are repressive, so why only target Israel? I believe this is a purist argument that cynically precludes all action. In fact I have not heard of a boycott call against USA, China, Iran, or other places mentioned by artists as repressive, by people repressed by them. This includes Kashmir, where as far as I know, no local group has called for any cultural boycott.

There are specific international petitions like the protest against Ai Wei Wei’s arrest that many of us have signed, but it is interesting to note that neither Ai Wei Wei who had earlier worked with the Chinese government on the Beijing Olympics, nor other targeted Chinese artists or academics, have actually called for a boycott of China or Chinese institutions. They may not want, or need a boycott.

An international boycott is a serious issue and an extreme step to be used in a worst case scenario, 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 M.K. 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. However, no change is instant and needs to be built up over time. Each action is like a building block.

Hindutva and Zionism
Our Hindutva organizations deeply admire the Zionist ideas of racial superiority and anti- Muslim views while identifying themselves fully with the sense of victimhood. Ironically, they also admire Hitler and his fascist policies of ethnic cleansing, forgetting that European Jews were themselves victims of the Holocaust, which led to the formation of Israel! 

Starting with the NDA Government, the earlier Indian policy of support to the Palestinian people shifted to one of building a strategic tie-up with Israel, as India has been moving rightwards and getting closer to America, the greatest supporter of Israel.  India is importing billions of worth of arms from Israel with its attendant arms deal scams, and tying up with Mossad, its secret service, in “counter-terrorism”  or “security co-operation” which also operates in sensitive spots like Kashmir. The collaborations extend to science, agriculture and cultural exchange.

The Deconstructing India show was going to inaugurate the new Amir wing designed by the American architect Preston Scott Cohen, a show piece of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, heavily funded and built in an effort to increase Israel’s prestige internationally as a world cultural hub. The boycott of the show got a lot of media attention in India and internationally, particularly in Israel and Palestine. When the curators were asked by the Indian press about the boycott call they replied that the show might not take place, not because of the controversy surrounding it, but because of lack of funds. In fact, the show took place in a somewhat low key way on the same dates, in May 2012. Most of the artists invited for the show decided to participate except for three of us who boycotted it. It was renamed Critical Mass, in an amusing sleight of hand.

For those artists who feel that we have no power to change anything, so what is the point of a Boycott, the answer is that artists, intellectuals and sportspeople are seen as opinion makers, which is the reason they are asked to take a stand on issues. In the earlier successful Boycott of Apartheid South Africa, the strong stand taken by individuals and small groups built into a large movement that pressurized world governments into imposing sanctions, which finally led to the dismantling of Apartheid.

The Phantom Lady
May 2013