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April 23, 2023

Artist Withdraws from PAMA exhibition

“Canadian Sikh activist” photos at centre of dispute
By Zool Suleman
Inderjit Singh Reyat and Talvinder Singh Parmar

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Artist Pamila Matharu was scheduled to open her exhibition “SOME TOTAL” at the Peel Art Gallery Museum and Archives (PAMA) in Brampton, Ontario on April 29, 2023. On April 19, she withdrew from the commitment due to a dispute with PAMA over the images of Inderjit Singh Reyat and Talwinder Singh Parmar. The exhibition was to include 101 “objects” including many archival photos. April is Sikh Heritage Month across Canada and PAMA has also been hosting Sikh Heritage Month related programming. Matharu was described as a “Toronto-based, Panjabi-Sikh interdisciplinary artist” on PAMA’s website before details of her exhibition were removed. Her exhibition, curated by Sharona Adamowicz-Clements, was to be a part of the 2023 Soctiabank CONTACT Photography Festival.

Matharu’s exhibition included black and white photo images of Reyat and Parmar, which she purchased on eBay in December 2018 as part of an auction lot titled “Terrorists and Murderers”. Each individual image includes the name of the person and then the text “Canadian Sikh activist” with the date “(CP Photo) 12-85 (stf).” They appear to be photos shot by a staff photographer at the Canadian Press (CP) news service, dated December 1985, and titled by Canadian Press. CP did not respond to Rungh’s email seeking further details.

Reyat and Parmar are central to the story of the bombing of Air India flight 182 on June 23, 1985, which killed more than 329 people midflight. 268 of them were Canadians and more than 80 were children. A related explosion at Narita Airport in Tokyo, killed two baggage handlers. In total, 331 were killed in both explosions. Since the circumstances related to Reyat and Parmar took place far outside the Canadian art world more than three decades ago, it is important to know who they were and what they did.

Reyat was convicted in Canada of various criminal offences related to the two bomb explosions on June 23, 1985. In May 1991, Reyat was convicted of manslaughter and explosives charges for his role in the deaths of two baggage handlers at Narita Airport in Tokyo. The bomb was supposed to explode midair aboard Air India flight 301 but detonated on the ground instead before the luggage could be loaded on the airplane. He was sentenced to ten years in prison. In February 2003, Reyat pled guilty to a manslaughter offence for aiding in the construction of another bomb that exploded midair on June 23, 1985, near the coast of Ireland, aboard Air India flight 182. He was sentenced to a further five years for these crimes. He was charged with perjury in 2006 in relation to his testimony at the trials of Ajaib Singh Bagri and Ripudaman Singh Malik, both of whom were charged with 331 counts of first-degree murder related to both bombings and acquitted. Reyat’s perjured testimony at Bagri and Malik’s trial led to Reyat being sentenced in 2011 to serving a further nine years in jail, one of the longest sentences for perjury in Canadian history. He was granted statutory release in 2016.

In March 2005, Parmar was found to be one of the leaders of the conspiracy related to the bombings, by a British Columbia Supreme Court judge. In a sworn declaration Reyat had stated that he had acted at the request of Parmar. By the time of this finding, Parmar had already returned to India and had been killed by India police authorities in October 1992.

The Government of Canada’s Response to the Commission of Inquiry into the Investigation of the Bombing of Air India Flight 182 from December 2010 refers to the bombing as “the worst terrorist attack in Canadian history…planned and executed in Canada.”

The controversy related to Matharu’s exhibition at PAMA first emerged on Matharu’s Facebook page on April 11 when she wrote “my images just got banned from my own exhibit…apparently members of the Sikh artistic community and front of house staff spoke out about two images of the individuals who bombed Air India Flight 182 in 1985…Why wasn’t I invited to the conversation?!”. Matharu’s Facebook page includes two images, one of Reyat and one of Parmar.

Matharu and representatives of PAMA had been in discussion since at least April 11 when Matharu had been asked to remove the photos of Reyat and Parmar from her exhibition. Rene Nand, Manager, Community and Cultural Engagement at PAMA, wrote to Matharu on April 17 requesting that the photographs be removed: “respectfully, we believe that certain images from SOME TOTAL, namely those of terrorist responsible for the deaths of over 300 Canadians labelled as ‘Activist’ as part of your exhibit, will be deeply triggering, hurtful and/or re-traumatising for our members….the Region of Peel has a large South Asian community. Many of our constituents lost parents, children, family and friends in the terrorist bombing of Air India 182.” Nand went on to invite Matharu to an “open and respectful dialogue…while also upholding PAMA’s mandate of ensuring a safe space for its community.”

The earlier discussions between Matharu and PAMA, which included the possibility of content warnings, a public gathering in the form of a “mediated long table”, and outreach activities, did not lead to a resolution. A part of the impasse included the term “activist” being removed from the inscriptions on the photos of Reyat and Parmar.

Matharu has provided Rungh a copy of an email sent under her email address to Nand at PAMA on April 19. The email, which appears to have the tone and content of a demand letter drafted by a lawyer, states that Matharu is withdrawing her “exhibit in full” and making demands for a public apology as well as other monetary damage claims under the Ontario Human Rights Code. As of this story date, it is unclear if a claim has been filed by Matharu against PAMA or whether Matharu prefers the quick settlement she references in her email.

Rungh wrote to PAMA requesting a response to a list of written questions related to Matharu’s exhibition. PAMA did not respond to Rungh’s interview request nor reply to the specific questions posed. In a brief email dated April 20, Nand replied to Rungh that “PAMA is committed to providing a psychological and physically safe experience for all staff and visitors, while providing an unfettered voice for artists to express themselves”.

The conflict between PAMA and Matharu is being framed in two ways. For the artist Matharu, it is about artistic expression and being censored. For PAMA, it appears to be about the health and safety of its staff and visitors.

Matharu agreed to an interview with Rungh on April 21. She explained that before she withdrew from the exhibition there had been two video conferences with PAMA staff and that in the second video conference she was explicitly told that she had to withdraw the two images, those of Reyat and Parmar.

Matharu referred to Reyat and Parmar and the Air India bombings as being like an “albatross” which “we are never going to shake” and which results in hyper scrutiny and surveillance for herself as a Sikh artist and for the Sikh community in general. She began talking about Khalistan and stated that “I am not in any way Khalistani supporting”, and then amended her comments by stating “if there are Khalistanis, I am not supporting their acts of harm…I am not going to shut down any dialogue around land sovereignty in Panjab…there is a history there and it pre-dates the British.”

As a part of her communications with PAMA, and during her interview with Rungh, Matharu referenced a “watch list”. The document referenced by Matharu is the Minister of Public Safety’s “2018 Public Report on the Terrorism Threat to Canada”. This report generated negative commentary from some portions of the Sikh community in Canada and in response, then Public Safety Minister, Ralph Goodale issued a statement on December 14, 2018, that the language of the report would be reviewed.

In response to questions about if PAMA had acted prematurely in worrying about harm before the exhibition had even opened, Matharu noted that the exhibition should have been opened to the public and any harms which might have resulted, should have been dealt with by way of conversations. Matharu felt that PAMA’s demands had severely limited her artistic vision and she feared that the demands from PAMA might not have stopped at those listed in PAMA’s email of April 17.

Matharu took umbrage with PAMA’s claims that her exhibition was “harmful” or that Matharu was somehow a “perpetrator” of the harm and that her exhibition was the subject of a PAMA inhouse “risk assessment” process.

PAMA had informed Matharu that a PAMA staff member felt harmed during the preparation of the exhibition, from viewing the two photos, Matharu told Rungh “is that my problem? You [PAMA] are the one making the big bucks, like go take care of your colleague, suggest a sick leave.” PAMA seemed to be mainly concerned about its stakeholders, according to Matharu, “the position of the artist is very minimal in PAMA’s view.”

“Counter Archive” is the term which Matharu applies to her creative method and that the two images are a “counter memory” which “nobody lets you talk about.”

When specifically asked if she knew what Reyat was charged with and convicted of, Matharu stated “Oh well, you can find it on Wiki…I think one of them died and one is still in jail, right?”. During the video interview with Rungh, Matharu then appeared to type on her keyboard to search for a “public safety” report and went to on to say, while appearing to read from her computer monitor, “one of them made the bombs, I believe in Duncan, BC and…Parmar was like the…they called him the ‘mastermind’”. She appeared hesitant in her answers and shifted the conversation to how she is exploring the “nation state” and how her exhibition is responding to “being put back on a Federal watch list.”

Matharu informed Rungh that her evolving exhibition is slated for future openings in other arts institutions in Canada.