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Antisemitic mural removed from Documenta art show

June 22, 2022

After first covering up an artwork deemed to include antisemitic depictions, Documenta organizers have pulled down the controversial banner by artist collective Taring Padi.

Workers on a scaffold removing a mural
The large mural was taken down Tuesday after outcry over antisemitic elements represented in the pieceImage: Uwe Zucchi/dpa/picture alliance

On Tuesday evening in Kassel, Germany, where the Documenta international contemporary art exhibition is taking place, the contentious mural "People's Justice" was taken down amid booing, whistling and clapping from spectators.

The work by the Indonesian art collective Taring Padi, originally exhibited in 2002 in Australia, features a soldier-like figure depicted as a pig wearing a scarf with a Star of David and a helmet bearing the word "Mossad" — the name of Israel's national intelligence agency.

Antisemitic tropes are evident in another figure depicted in the work as well. That figure, wearing a black hat with a runic Nazi "SS" insignia, has sidelocks — like those associated with Orthodox Jews — fangs and bloodshot eyes.

The removal of the artwork was "overdue" and "is only a first step … more must follow,"  said Germany's State Minister for Culture and the Media Claudia Roth, in a statement. She questioned "how it was possible for this mural with antisemitic figurative elements to be installed."

"Antisemitic depictions must have no place in Germany, not even in an art show with a global scope," said Documenta Director Sabine Schormann in a statement published Tuesday as "People's Justice" was being taken down. The Association of Jewish Communities in the State of Lower Saxony has meanwhile demanded that exhibition director Schormann resign from her position, according to media reports.

A soldier-like figure depicted as a pig wearing a scarf with a Star of David and a helmet bearing the word "Mossad".
The offending images included a soldier depicted as a pig wearing a scarf with a Star of David, symbol of the State of IsraelImage: Uwe Zucchi/dpa/picture alliance

Covering artwork not enough

Outrage over the piece became quickly audible after the exhibition officially opened on Saturday. On Monday, it was concealed with black cloth and an explanatory statement. This, however, was deemed unacceptable by Jewish community groups.   

"Attaching a footnote is absurd," said Charlotte Knobloch, president of the Jewish Community of Munich and Upper Bavaria, in southern Germany.

Sabine Schormann joined Documenta curators from the Indonesian art collective Ruangrupa to "explicitly apologize" for not recognizing the antisemitic depictions before the artwork was installed.

The Israeli Embassy in Germany stated that it was "digusted by the antisemitic elements publicly displayed" at the exhibition, adding that parts of were, "reminiscent of propaganda used by Goebbels and his goons during darker times in German history."

'Where artistic freedom ends'

Antisemitism researcher Wolfgang Benz, the former director of the Center for Research on Antisemitism (ZfA) at the Technical University of Berlin, criticized Documenta organizers for giving too much control to its guest curators.

"Out of political and historical responsibility, I would check whether something in this exhibition violates human rights, whether something offends Jews or other minorities," he told the Tagespiegel daily newspaper.

"Artistic freedom ends," he added, when an artwork violates those considerations.   

Kassel Mayor Christian Geselle said he was ashamed of the incident, "Something that was not supposed to happen, has." Angela Dorn-Rancke, state minister for higher education, research, science and the arts for the state of Hesse — where Kassel is located — said, "I am angry, I am disappointed." She also said the incident would damage documenta's reputation.

Others have questioned why Israeli artists are not participating at the art show.

"It is striking that apparently no Jewish artists or artists from Israel are represented at this major exhibition of contemporary art," said German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the opening of Documenta 15.

Steinmeier was refering indirectly to an earlier controversyregarding the participation in Kassel of Palestinian artist group, A Question of Funding, which was accused of having links to the BDS boycott Israel movement.

People stand in front of a tall scaffold
After being initially covered up, the mural was removed entirely on day four of the high-profile international exhibitionImage: Uwe Zucchi/dpa/picture alliance

Indonesian artist-curators hope to continue dialogue

Meanwhile, Documenta Director Sabine Schormann reiterated that antisemitic depictions were a red line for her, despite an "understanding for the concerns of the Global South and the visual language used there."

The artists of the Indonesian Taring Padi collective apologized for the "hurt caused," and on Monday said the work was, "not meant to be related in any way to antisemitism." Instead, it was "part of a campaign against militarism and the violence we experienced during Suharto's 32-year military dictatorship in Indonesia."

Schormann and Documenta's curators, who invited 1,500 exhibitors, many from the Global South, say they hope to maintain a constructive dialogue at the five-yearly art exhibition. 

"With respect for the diversity of cultural backgrounds, the dialogue that began with Documenta 15 will be continued," they said in a statement. 

Edited by: Manasi Gopalakrishnan, Louisa Schaefer

Stuart Braun | DW Reporter
Stuart Braun Berlin-based journalist with a focus on climate and culture.