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Speeches & Silences: What Our Cultural Institutions Speak For and Remain Silent Over Today

Guest Opinion

“It did initially feel like a little bit of a hollow statement to make, given the limited nature of our contracting with police, but as days went on and I had conversations with staff, artists, and other people in our community, I recognized it is a powerful statement to make. The goal (in) making such a statement public is to compel change.”

Speaking to ARTnews, the statement that Mary Ceruti, the director of Walker Art Center in the US, is talking about is the institution’s decision to stop contracting the Minneapolis Police Department for matters of security. Yet while Ceruti imagined the idea of disbanding the relationship “hollow” (even when one considers the seven long years of this partnership with the MPD), the same couldn’t be said for the rallying cry that’s bellowing deep in the heart of America today: that of defunding the police, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. If you’re curious about why Walker took the first step, jog your memory—Minneapolis is where George Floyd was killed.

Let’s come to another museum, the Nelson-Atkins in Kansas. In a statement, its director Julián Zugazagoitia mentioned: “The museum’s security approved this request from the KCMO Police Department on Friday, and this was not unusual, given the spirit of our long history of cooperation.”

This approval was about the Kansas Police Department’s patrol units being given permission to utilize the museum premises for staging purposes if needed to physically brace against BLM protesters. No sooner was this information made public that outrage poured from all over about the museum and the director’s complicity in supporting racist structures of oppression. It took a few days for the units to vacate the lot, but the message had come across clear.

Police vehicles at Nelson-Atkins. Courtesy of Hyperallergic.

Amidst calls for defunding the police and divesting assets in support of Black and other marginalized communities, art workers have been quick to point out the collaboration galleries and museums have with the police today. We fail to realize today that standing beside the artworks for security is often a retired or off-duty cop. Breaking off such ties is a bold and powerful statement; museums are seen as bulwarks of culture, heritage, and what politics would call ‘soft power’ centers, and a reaction from them is bound to shift gears.

So what are we to make of the organizers of the India Art Fair, when this year they allowed the Delhi Police officials to cordon off and disrupt a part of the fair over complaints of some artworks being too political and against the recent CAA?

Art Remains Political

‘The Wall: Community Art Building Mural’ was imagined as a collage of paintings inspired by the women at Shaheen Bagh, while a performance of Faiz’s song Hum Dekhenge (We’ll See) would be played in the background. The concept was about highlighting the solidarity and celebration of women who had come out on the streets from the comfort of their homes. Yet before this could be properly executed, scores of Delhi Police officials arrived at the scene in what could only be felt like a raid and stopped the proceedings. The organizers were quick to shut down the performance.

A sign outside the IAF warning against any protestations. Courtesy of Artnet News.

It’s interesting to note that PTI recorded the statement of a senior police official saying: “We received a PCR call that some paintings depicting the CAA were being exhibited at the fair. A police team was sent to check it, but no such painting was exhibited.” Myna Mukherjee, the curator for the exhibition that was cordoned off, however, wasn’t angry at the presence of the police, but rather the organizers:

“India Art Fair organizers don’t seem to have a spine whatsoever. Police were more fair to us than the organizer folks. We deferred to the Fair’s rules. There was no sloganeering. We talked of unity, resurgence and solidarity, and women’s leadership.”

The hullabaloo was at the cost of a bystander’s islamophobic reaction towards the art carrying Urdu calligraphy and Faiz’s lyrics. But to disassociate the idea of contemporary political happenings from art in India would be a pitfall into which we can’t afford to jump. Indian art post-independence owes its growth to socio-political engagements that were happening in the country. The Progressive Artists Group embracing western modernism was a clear reaction to break away from the pre-colonial idea of a ‘court-artisan’ in a newly independent India; The Radical Group of the 1980s emerged a result of an anti-feudal, anti-caste sentiment that arose against the backdrop of the Emergency; and today’s prevalence of protest art is just another mark about how art is influenced by societal thought and changes. So it’s fair to ask, what does the establishment, which we know has a powerful stake in influencing such thoughts and changes, do about it?