Gender-based violence and art in the #MeToo era

What is an art institution’s responsibility when one of its ‘star’ artists is violent towards women?

Modisakeng Art Getty
"Untitled, Qhatha series, 2010 - 2011" by Mohau Modisakeng goes on view as part of Sotheby's Modern & Contemporary African Art sale on March 23, 2018 in London, England [Tristan Fewings/Getty Images]

Recently, a prominent South African artist, Mohau Modisakeng, who represented South Africa at the 2017 Venice Biennale, was briefly arrested for assaulting his female companion in a boarding area of Jomo Kenyatta Airport in Nairobi, Kenya.

He was, according to multiple witness accounts, abusive – both verbally and physically. When Modisakeng’s companion refused to leave the airport with him, he allegedly tore up her passport. Kenyan authorities eventually arrived at the scene and arrested him. passport is considered the property of the state, and purposefully destroying one is considered a serious crime. 

The incident came to be widely known when Simphiwe Dana, a critically acclaimed South African singer, took to social media on June 21 to say that she was sorry to have unwittingly aided an “abuser”. She told her followers that Modisakeng, who is a “family friend”, had contacted her when he was arrested in Kenya, and she helped – through her contacts there – to get him released.

She said she did not fully understand why he was detained at the time and, in hindsight, she regrets her decision to help. Katlego Malatji, a South African passenger who had intervened and helped Modisakeng’s companion get on the flight and get home safely, also took to Twitter on the same day to detail what he had witnessed.

He was upset that Modisakeng was released. Following Dana and Malatji’s tweets, the incident was also covered in the media

Soon after Modisakeng allegedly assaulted his female companion and damaged her passport, I was scheduled to travel to Australia to be at the opening of a remarkable exhibition at Cairns Art Gallery in Queensland.

“Continental Drift: Black / Blak Art from South Africa and north Australia” brings together contemporary artwork by indigenous Australian and South African artists, and celebrates and critically examines “global black art and culture”.

I had written one of the two catalogue essays, focusing on the South African artists’ works, and was invited to give talks at opening events. Among the works by South African artists were three large works by Modisakeng. 

I wondered about how to proceed, given that Modisakeng’s works, which critically examine the aftereffects of violence on a deeply personal level, were a prominent part of the exhibition. There was never a doubt in my mind that I would disclose what I knew about Modisakeng’s actions to the gallery’s director and the curator, but I assumed they already knew.

Usually, when an incident like this happens, art dealers and galleries move quickly to protect their corporate interests and send PR statements publicly declaring their deep and abiding commitment to women’s rights, while awaiting the processes of justice to proceed.

However, it turned out, I was the first person to inform Cairns Art Gallery about what happened in Kenya.

Whatiftheworld Gallery, which represents Modisakeng, had decided to remain silent. Even when I personally asked them to provide an explanation, their response came weeks after the incident, on July 20: The gallery was in “discussion with Mohau to hear his side … [and] actively trying to get a response [from] Kenyan airport officials and other witnesses”; and “while we can’t condone we also can’t alienate and seek to make meaningful behavioural change in a vacuum”. 

In his own response, which came after the issue was covered in the media, Modisakeng claimed that he neither “physically assaulted” his fiancee, nor was “detained or arrested”. He added that they are “both undergoing counselling to help us address emotional issues” and “remain committed to each other”. He returned to social media, and posted an image of a boat at sea on his Instagram page, with the caption, “Come hell or high water”.

I commend Modisakeng for finally taking responsibility for his rage. And while I agree with his gallery’s statement, I wonder how “meaningful behavioural change” could happen, given the propensity to silence any discussion about “troubling behaviour” in the art industry.

I didn’t want to be part of the industry of whitewashing – especially not at an exhibition meant to examine the long-term effects of colonial violence on black and indigenous people. At the same time, I didn’t want to spoil Cairns Art Gallery’s wonderful exhibition.

An opening event is celebratory, a time to recognise deserving and innovative artists’ work. I worried that in my attempt to call on all those present – art professionals, fellow artists, writers, and collectors – to be responsible and take action, I would, instead, focus the spotlight on an undeserving and abusive artist.

Cairns Art Gallery’s director, Andrea Churcher, who only came to know about the incident via my email, welcomed a frank – but private – conversation. She informed me that in the past, when there were allegations of unethical or violent behaviour against an artist, her institution had waited for a court of law to charge the person before making decisions about removing their work or making any public statements.

Even when I pressed via email for an official statement, I was told that our discussions were based on personal opinions, based on how the gallery’s board had previously responded, and that there was no formalised policy. 

In the end, it was up to me, alone, to make a statement on the opening night – if I so wished. It was an uncomfortable position to be in – made especially so by the lack of support from the institution. 

But I knew I had to say something. I knew the significance of this exhibition, that it was attempting to counter colonial violence and erasures. I also knew that speaking about endemic violence among black artists’ communities in a gallery frequented largely by white patrons would be a complicated matter.

So when it was my turn to speak, I talked about what happened. I clarified why it is imperative that we speak openly about violent behaviour of artists and art practitioners in general. I contextualised why gender-based violence, especially in groups that have experienced centuries of colonial and state violence, remains rarely spoken about in public, especially not with “outsiders”.

We sometimes protect abusers, because we know racist caricatures about our people are furthered through the erroneous belief that “domestic” violence – assault of intimate partners – is a thing that only black men, or the “native” do.

Statistics show that gender-based violence happens across class, professional, and racial groups. 

Yet, we continue to believe mythologies that were essential to the colonial projects: that “white” societies, being egalitarian and civilised, must act as “saviours” – policing, protecting, and teaching the violent, native-other to be better. For those reasons, I was careful to point out that “white” communities are no strangers to gender-based and other forms of violence.

After all, the long after-effects of centuries of colonial violence towards indigenous and colonised populations – a subject that many artists included in the exhibition, including Modisakeng, were grappling with in their artworks – did not simply disappear.

That violence lives on through continued institutional violence; we see it in educational policies, policing practices, in how art institutions exclude black artists except when it is convenient to tokenise them, and in how judgments made by courts of law show systematic bias towards women and black persons. 

After I spoke, several people came over immediately after, and over the next few days, and thanked me for saying what I did. They are not foreign to similar issues, and equally struggle with community and institutional silencing.  

Stories of repetitive, unwanted sexual advances, harassment, and other forms of violence including sexual assault are not uncommon in the art industry – whether from those running the institutions, or from fellow artists, writers, and curators.

The #MeToo movement has forced many abusive, exploitative workplaces to come to a reckoning. That reckoning would have never happened if we continued to support a culture of silencing and the myth that violent “complicated” men produce brilliant work and that if abusers were no longer accepted we would have empty spaces or mediocre work on our walls.

I know that in order to avoid taking action, we often wrap ourselves in comfortable old cloaks. First, we hear a familiar refrain: that cultural institutions defer to decisions made by legal institutions, and avoid rumours and unjust judgments fashioned in courts of public opinion. However, this commitment to the processes and decisions made by institutions of the law shelters abusive “star” artists, curators, and others in positions of power. Institutions – be they courts or art galleries and museums – have been instrumental in violent and exclusionary practices towards women, colonised people, and other vulnerable communities.

Second, we avoid action by referring to how the value of artwork must be separated from the flawed person who creates it. If I show an overlap between the political and aesthetic in my evaluations of artwork, I know that I will be seen as “less sophisticated” than someone who knows how to value art outside of “politics”.

However, when perpetration of violent actions are happening in present time, and has on-going effects that are devastating both physically and psychologically on victims, our silence – and celebration – of violent perpetrators becomes part of how we are complicit in violence.

By claiming to wait for courts to decide, art institutions and those who are in positions of power at those institutions unwittingly help maintain cultures of abuse. They engage in protecting violent actors within their communities, even when violators are openly abusive towards women and other vulnerable people. Inaction and hand-wringing look good on the surface; we look reasonable, rational, ethical, rather than susceptible to rumour and unjust judgments fashioned in courts of public opinion.

I have no doubt that decision-makers are facing pressure to keep violent artists’ works on the walls. But no artist’s work is so sacred that it exists out of context – outside of their own actions, social conditions, the history and the present that make us who we are.

We need ongoing conversations that demand accountability and necessary change. Taking work down or including a prominent statement is a start, but that, alone, is not a productive solution that will make violence – particularly intimate partner violence – magically disappear.

How we, as professionals in the art world, decide to react towards the violent people working in our field will have a significant impact. Individuals in influential positions and persons on boards are the guides of institutional policies – they reflect prevailing “norms” and belief systems of dominant cultural groups. And conversely, institutions shape our values and what we accept as “norms”.

As we have seen many times over the years, unjust institutional values can change if and when there is a concentrated effort, willingness, strategy, and support. That gives me great hope for the principles and ethics that I will continue to fight to uphold. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.