Artist apologises for racially charged comments; gallery removes his works

Local artist Jonathan Lim has apologised for his racially charged comments on social media against co-artist Priyageetha Dia and her friend.

His social media posts on Jan 10 prompted NPE Art Residency and Gallery to remove his works, and also sparked an online backlash and discussions among netizens and artists about inclusivity in Singapore's art community.

When contacted by The Straits Times yesterday, Mr Lim, 28, again apologised for his remarks, and added that he accepted the consequences of his actions.

The controversy was ignited by his remarks on an incident at the joint opening night of two consecutive exhibitions at NPE Art Residency and Gallery. They were to feature his works and those of Ms Priyageetha, 28, an installation artist.

Both the artists had signed residency contracts with the gallery last October.

At the opening last Thursday, Mr Lim alleged in his post that Ms Priyageetha's friend, whom he identified as Ms Chand Chandramohan, had laughed when guest of honour Ben Slater, an associate chair (students) at Nanyang Technological University, used the word iconoclastic.

Ms Chand later said in a Facebook post that Mr Slater told her the word he wanted to use was iconography.

Mr Lim said her actions were "fundamentally socially inadequate" and "unkind", and used the racial slur "snake whores" against the two women, who are of Indian descent.

He also referred to them as members of a minority cult, adding that he was not afraid of people "who try to oppress me with the abuse of their minority privilege".

However, later in the day, he apologised on social media for his comments.

His posts prompted reactions from both women on the same day while the gallery did so the following day.

Ms Priyageetha and Ms Chand, in separate Facebook posts, questioned Mr Lim's note, and expressed concerns about inclusive and safe spaces for South Asian women artists in Singapore.

Ms Chand also highlighted portions of his post and said she expected an apology from NPE Art Residency and Gallery for the incident, which she considered racial and sexual harassment.

When contacted, Ms Priyageetha said Mr Lim had brought up Ms Chand's conduct only the day after the event.

"I was in disbelief and very furious. Jonathan crossed the line on so many levels," she said.

"The snake slur is a demeaning, racial insult and has been used on me before," she added.

Ms Priyageetha said NPE Art Residency and Gallery had contacted her following the incident. She added that arts institutions and organisations need to take concrete actions to promote inclusivity.

The gallery posted on its Facebook page that it "does not support and condemns racism".

"The NPE team has spoken to former artist-in-residence, Jonathan Lim, with regard to this stand and wishes to inform all future artists-in-residence to abide by this stand.

"NPE has withdrawn all of Jonathan's works at the gallery with immediate effect."

Yesterday, Mr Lim said he had invited Mr Slater to speak at the event.

"Everything done (on the residency) was done as far as possible in consultation and collaboration with all necessary parties, including Ms Priyageetha," he added.

He also said that following the public backlash against his first post, he had received violent threats.

Mr Lim acknowledged his initial post was "grossly unacceptable" and he accepted the gallery's decision. "I am accountable for my words, and I accept the consequences of what I said and I hope others will accept my apology with grace," he said.

Correction note: This article has been edited for clarity.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 15, 2020, with the headline Artist apologises for racially charged comments; gallery removes his works. Subscribe