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Documenta curators react to canceled talks

Stefan Dege
May 11, 2022

Discussions on the topic of artistic freedom, which had planned to address accusations of antisemitism, were cancelled: The art show's curators, ruangrupa, have published an open letter on the accusations.

A poster of Documenta Fifteen on a building.
The 15th edition of Documenta has been plagued with claims of antisemitismImage: Andreas Fischer/epd-bild

The 2022 documenta art exhibition will take place from June 18 to September 25 in the central German city of Kassel, bringing in artists from around the world who address today's global challenges in their work — from climate change and digitization to social upheaval and political radicalization.

Yet for months, the exhibition, which happens only once every five years, has been surrounded by controversy.

The first accusation was made in January: In an anonymous blog post, a alliance against antisemitism criticized ruangrupa, the Indonesian curatorial team behind the 15th edition of documenta.

The writers of the post claimed a Palestinian artist collective involved in the exhibition was antisemitic, because the artists supported the cultural boycott of Israel.

Ruangrupa, documenta and Museum Fridericianum gGmbH, the nonprofit which supports the show, have rejected the accusations.

The documenta supervisory board, and even Claudia Roth of the Green Party, Germany's state minister for culture and media, also backed the documenta team.

A poster advertising solidarity with Ukraine hangs on the Fridericanium in Kassel with people walking in front of it.
Documenta aims to address contemporary issues, including the current war in Ukraine Image: Uwe Zucchi/dpa/picture alliance

Following the accusations, Ruangrupa

had released a statement in which they rejected encroachments on artistic freedom, yet spoke out in favor of political neutrality and declared their willingness to engage in dialogue.

Reacting to the cancellation of a forum that would have allowed such a conversation to take place, they have now published on May 9 an open letter in the daily Berliner Zeitung, in which they elaborate on the issue.

They stated in their piece that the "character assassination" and "defamation campaigns" of Palestinian artists is "based on rumors" that have "racist effects" on these people. "The accusation of 'BDS proximity,' from which the accusation of 'Israel-related antisemitism' is derived, primarily affects people from the Global South and especially from the Middle East, and leads to exclusions and disqualifications," ruangrupa wrote. 

It should be consensus that the people affected by these rumors and accusations should be allowed to be part of the discussion, they added. 

Panel discussions scrapped

A forum was scheduled in May to discuss the "fundamental right of artistic freedom in the face of antisemitism, racism and Islamophobia" and three online discussions were planned for May 8, 15 and 22, under the title "We need to talk!"

Yet in a surprising twist, the events were canceled just days before they were to take place.

"Documenta has decided, in consultation with various participants, to suspend the series of events planned for May 8, 15 and 22, 2022, 'We need to talk! Art - Freedom - Solidarity,'" the event's organizers announced in a statement on the show's website on May 4.

Documenta will "open the exhibition and first let it speak for itself, as a basis for continuing the discussion in a productive manner," said organizers.

"At this moment, documenta's intended goal for the series of talks — to open a multi-perspective dialogue beyond institutional frameworks in the run-up to documenta 15 — is unfortunately not realizable."

Nevertheless, wrote the organization, it is very important "that this thread of conversation not be cut off."

The group wrote that documenta aims to "build on the existing approach to the discussion" during the months the show will run in Kassel. It seems that the organizers are responding to concerns that were once again brought up in the public sphere in recent days.

A portrait of Claudia Roth looking into the camera.
Claudia Roth, Germany's state minister for culture and media, approved of the initial decision to hold discussionsImage: Kristian Schuller/DW

Not everyone happy with discussions

The choice of guests invited to take part in the discussions triggered controversy, as suggested by a letter from the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Josef Schuster, to Roth.

Schuster did not make his letter public, and DW's inquiries to see it went unanswered. But German news agency dpa reported key passages. According to Schuster, the only way to combat antisemitism is "clear avowals and resolute political action at every level of politics, art, culture and society."

It remains unclear whether or not a representative for the Central Council of Jews wanted to sit at the discussion table, or whether Schuster disagreed with the selection of experts.

One of the discussions, for example, addressed, according to the documenta announcement, differences in the "German and international understanding of antisemitism and racism," while another dealt with "the phenomenon of anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian racism." Those involved in the events came from a variety of fields.

Joseph Schuster speaks into a microphone on a podium.
Josef Schuster, the head of Germany's Central Council of Jews, wrote a letter expressing his dissatisfaction with documentaImage: Melanie Grande/epd

The Berlin Islam scholar Schirin Amir-Moazami was to take part, as was the Israeli author Omri Boehm and the antisemitism researcher Marina Chernivsky, who is also an adviser to the federal government's commissioner for Jewish life in Germany.

The culture minister for the state of Hesse, Angela Dorn, who is also deputy chair of the documenta supervisory board, had initially welcomed the expert panel, thanks to its "voices from different fields such as Holocaust and antisemitism research, colonialism and racism research, land rights studies, Indigenous studies, law, media, and art and culture." Negotiating the topic of artistic freedom in this case, she said, is good. The importance and defense of Israel's right to exist, Dorn said, is inextricably linked to Germany's historical responsibility.

This article was originally written in German.

Update: This article, first published on May 4, 2022, was updated following the publication of ruangrupa's open letter.

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