Gaston Damag And An Accusation Of Sexual Misconduct
The internet, and one of its offsprings, the hashtag, proved to be an effective equalizer. Following the Harvey Weinstein incident, #metoo emboldened women to speak up and rekindled the activist spirit to sustain momentum in the campaign against sexual harassment. The hashtag’s phenomenal success also helped dismantle some of Hollywood’s power structures that enabled abusive behavior. In recent months, the Weinstein episode’s ripple effect has reached the world of art and music where a few of its towering personalities are accused of sexual misconduct. These include the Metropolitan Opera’s James Levine, the Jewish Museum of New York’s Jens Hoffman, both of whom were suspended from their posts. Knight Landesman has also resigned as publisher of Artforum amidst allegations of sexual harassment.
This brings us to the local art scene, rife with depictions of harsh truths as seen through the critical gaze of today’s artists. But what happens when a social reality explodes in their midst? In a story published by Rappler last Nov. 23, 22 year old Judy Fogoso accused Paris-based artist Gaston Damag of sexual misconduct. Except for a few who’ve voiced their support for Damag or rallied for Fogoso, the art community remained relatively silent. “Why isn’t anybody speaking up?” asked one editor. “The silence is sickening,” declared one gallerist, herself a victim of sexual harassment.
As recounted by Fogoso in a telephone interview, the incident happened last Oct. 26 in the home of artist Jigger Cruz. The night before, Fogoso was introduced to Damag by Cruz at an event which they (including Cruz’s live-in girlfriend) had attended. The group, including a friend of Fogoso’s, had dinner after. Later on, Fogoso accepted Cruz’s invitation to continue drinking in his house in Paranaque where Damag was a house guest. The group continued to drink, talk and jam until the wee hours. Cruz and his girlfriend were the first to retire to their room, followed by Fogoso who went to sleep in one of the guest rooms, leaving Damag drinking by himself in the living room.
Later, Fogoso would wake up to a nightmare. “I think that was just [after] two or three hours of sleep when I woke up. My phone was ringing as well, but at the same time, I was feeling his hands on my chest. He was trying to remove buttons from the back. Galing siya sa likod ko. Tapos yon, I immediately ran.” While running to Cruz’s bedroom, Fogoso managed to text a friend. “I just said . . . I think first text ko ata, ‘someone was taking advantage of me while I was sleeping.’ Then after nagpasundo na ako.”
Gaston Damag. Photo from www.Rappler.com
Fogoso woke up Cruz and his girlfriend. “I was asking them if I could stay there. Basta, I was in panic that time. I was saying, I don’t feel comfortable, I was scared. I didn’t get to say it was Gaston, pero siya lang naman yung andun.” According to Fogoso, Cruz went back to sleep while his girlfriend lead Fogoso to another room and handed her fresh clothes and water. “She gave me directions on how to get to the house. Nagpatawag siya ng helper to attend to my needs, like what I wanted to eat, tapos she left.” “Parang hindi,” was Fogoso’s answer when asked if Cruz’s girlfriend seemed alarmed. “I was crying, I couldn't speak properly, nanginginig ako. If something like that happened in my place, I wouldn't leave the person alone and I would address the guest [Gaston].”
Fogoso’s friend arrived in Cruz’s house and proceeded to wake up Gaston, who was still asleep in the room where the incident happened, and Cruz. In Cruz’s studio, Fogoso’s friend confronted the two men. “He asked them what happened, kasi ako hindi pa rin maka-respond at that time. At first, Gaston said something like he thought I liked it. And then he started saying sorry. And then, sinabi niya na nga na he touched me for three to four minutes lang.”
“At first he [Cruz] was saying that Gaston wouldn’t do anything like that. He was still siding and defending Gaston. Then he said to let it pass. When they were trying to convince me to let it go, my friend told me to get my stuff. And we left na.”
Since then, Fogoso has filed a case of Acts of Lasciviousness against Damag, who reportedly left the country without giving an official statement. Cruz has ignored a request for an interview. After a well-attended opening last Nov. 18, The Drawing Room has prematurely closed Damag’s exhibition. The high-profile incident, “a very important moment in a country where women are treated badly,” according to a foreign collector, with an artist involved, demands a response from a community regarded for its brave and outspoken stand against social ills, which includes the prevalence of Violence Against Women.
As published in the Philippine Commission on Women’s website, cases reported to the Philippine National Police (for the year 2013) revealed 1,259 for rape, 1025 for acts of lasciviousness and 3,564 for physical injuries. “This is bigger than Gaston and Judy,” said Ling Quisimbing. “The situation is very familiar, but nobody speaks up, because of shame,” said artist Ling Quisimbing. “Napro-propagate yung shame na yon because there are men and women who say kasalanan ng babae.”
Though the net can be empowering, it also can be a dangerous platform. Some have attacked Damag’s art, and dragged his family to the fray, posting Damag’s photo with his daughter online. Artist-run space Green Papaya Project’s Norberto Roldan responded by initiating a public forum, titled Speakesy. “We may fault those who came out in social media asserting support for Judy. But precisely because our society condones machismo, that they took to social media as a great equalizer and to avoid getting the issue swept under the rug. I am also concerned that the issue is being taken into hostile platform. Thus, the reason for this dialogue.”
These days, art institutions and organizations, notorious for cultural legitimization of abusive behavior, play a crucial role in protecting both men and women against gender-based crimes and offenses. “It’s important for us to question ourselves in the art world, and to look at how we empower people who bully and take advantage of those in positions of lesser power. I don’t think I’ve met a working woman who has not faced sexual harassment. So it’s important to both help women who come forward, but also actively critique our own positions and work towards creating safe spaces,” said a young art world insider.
The scenario also puts the pressure on galleries as representatives of artists. Separating the art from the artist is according to Ling Quisimbing, “a big no-no” in this current climate. Artists need to reconsider their positions as well. Whether they like or not, they are role models to a different generation of art fans. Damag carries an additional responsibility as a prominent Ifugao who has mined his heritage for his art.
It’s a pity that Damag’s show run was foreshortened. Titled Subverted Mythologies, it was a rousing articulation of his Ifugao roots. With him taking flight without issuing a statement, a young disappointed fan has this message for him: “Maybe you should just stop making art.”