[Editor’s Note : The information & views expressed in this article are those of the Author and do not reflect the official opinion of Gaysi Family]
Balbir Krishan speaks to Georgina Maddox about the recent controversy over the blatant plagiarism of the Wall of Solidarity.
Balbir Krishan is one of the few out queer artists, who lives and works in New Delhi; born in the small town of Bijrol in Baghpat district, Uttar Pradesh, Balbir has faced a lot of struggle, including Right Wing censorship of his solo exhibition at the Lalit Kala, Rabindra Bhavan, in Delhi. Despite this his works have been shown in Delhi, Hyderabad, Chennai and Mumbai. His works have been on the cover of several queer anthologies, most recently the LGBTQ by Kuhu Chanana and the Lalit Kala Akademi Journal. He has been featured in various international queer magazines and documentaries. While his paintings reference popular media, like calendar images of Gods and Goddesses, images from news clippings about violence against women and in the instance of his queer paintings he sometimes references images from various dating sites, these images only reveal themselves on closer scrutiny. What always dominates Balbir’s composition is the human figure, especially the male nude, a subject that he essays with élan, beauty and deftness.
Q. Tell us a little bit about the history of your involvement with this Wall of Solidarity copyright case…
I was part of RESIST and the Wall of Solidarity that was conceived as a travelling exhibition by Myna Mukherjee director of Engendered, in February 2013, after the horrific gang-rape of a paramedic student in a local bus in the Capital in December 2012. It travelled to Chennai in April 2013 and then to Mumbai in May 2013 where it was hosted by Gallery Beyond. When I was invited by Vibhuraj Kapoor of Gallery Beyond in 2015, I thought it was a continuation of the Wall that had happened in the past, but I found out in the nick of time that Myna di had expressly turned down the invitation, because she was busy with a couple of other projects over the summer in Delhi and the in winter in New York.
She had however left enough room though for involvement next year. Unknown to her Gallery Beyond’s Vibhuraj Kapoor and Shirdhar Rangayan the founder of the Kashish Mumbai Queer International Film Festival (KMQIFF) sent out the invitation to 100 of artists and art students. I had initially said yes, because Myna had been talking for a year that she wanted to extend the Wall to include issues of sexuality and I thought that this was an extension of her idea, not imagining for one minute that this was being done without her consent. Other artists like Sheetal Gattani and Rudra Kishore Mandal, had no idea as well.
Q. As a queer artist given that the 3771919 Wall is about solidarity for the queer cause and you are such a prominent name as a queer artist, why did you refuse to participate in this?
Even though this exhibition was about an issue close to my heart—critiquing article 377 that criminalizes being Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgendered, Queer or Intersex (LGBTQI), when talking of rights we should be urging for an inclusive and multi-issue progressive activism that is not exclusionary. We should not be content to only seek civil rights for gay men and lesbians, rather the movements need to address the politics of intersection.
Simply put we cannot be talking in solidarity of our human rights and have a wall, while trampling on creative and intellectual rights of another individual, which is exactly what is happening in this case. The whole purpose of solidarity is defeated in that case.
Q. As an artist what is the importance of originality of an artwork?
Most people who are truly committed with the engagement of artist original idea, will understand the importance of developing skill and refining an aesthetic over the years. Art whether it is painting, cinema, music or literature is meant to be visionary. It is lauded for its ability to promote a new idea and thought. Reproducing someone else’s idea is not just illegal it is also lazy and unproductive. For an artist it is very important to create something new and not something that was already done by others.
I am very shocked that Gallery Beyond would do such a blatant rip off because everyone knows that the Wall of Solidarity toured around the country and Gallery Beyond hosted it in Mumbai in May 2013. The fact that a gallery would actually invite someone and copy their idea a couple of years later to mimic its success, speaks volumes about the gallerists lack of morals. I don’t need a judge or a court to know this is wrong, everybody in the art world knows this is wrong.
I am also shocked that Shirdhar Rangayan, as a filmmaker would not know the virtue of originality.
Q. What about that the fact that the name of the exhibition is different from Wall of Solidarity? It is now called The 3771919 Wall, and there are some works that are round and rectangular, not just square 1×1 canvases?
It is obvious that after the copyright case was filed and there were rumblings, the organizers took some last minute steps to try and avoid legal ramifications of using the same name and the same format. It was a cosmetic change and it does not change the fact that they sent out the initial call letter as Wall of solidarity to everyone in the art community, art students and activists. In that letter, which I have a copy of, they had the exact format listed and the same name as the original Wall of Solidarity, it was much later that they changed the name and tried to superficially alter the format. Also from the images I saw on Facebook, 90 percent of the exhibition was presented in a 1×1 grid exactly the same as the Wall of Solidarity and there were only a few canvases that were different. Legally the courts may take a while to decide on this but ethically there is no doubt that The 3771919 Wall is a complete copy in execution and concept of the original Wall of Solidarity. As a community it is very important, that is already fighting an unjust law, for our rights, legality is not the only question.
Q. Tell us personally how you feel about the nonchalance displayed by the organizers despite letters sent across to them to reconsider appropriating the Wall of Solidarity.
I feel that it an act of arrogance and chauvinism, a false notion that people will not care about these things and especially because Myna Mukherjee is a woman directing an organization. While I am marginalized as gay man I realize I am privileged as being a ‘man’ living in a man’s world. Often we are insensitive to those privileges and are blind to the challenges of running a feminist organization in a largely patriarchal environment…often the efforts of such an organization, like Engendered, gets completely subsumed and appropriated by the male gay world and this is a prime example of that. Even if they had given Myna credit for the original idea as they had promised in an earlier mail, it would be one thing but Gallery Beyond and Kashish have announced all over Bombay that it was their idea and they have produced it, which is really wrong.