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Antisemitic art at documenta: A scandal foretold

Kieselbach Sabine
Sabine Kieselbach
June 22, 2022

Early warnings that documenta guest curators ruangrupa art collective of Indonesia supported anti-Jewish tendencies were ignored. Predictably, that has led to controversy, DW's Sabine Kieselbach writes.

Covered banner at Documental
Taring Padi collective's controversial 'People's Justice' banner at documenta was covered up before finally being removedImage: Sabine Oelze/DW

The trigger for the scandal at documenta fifteen was a huge mural some 12 meters (40 feet) high. During the opening weekend, the installation, "People's Justice," towered over the the famous art event. It was hard to overlook it.

It depicted an international court featuring an Israeli soldier with a pig's face and a Star of David and a helmet inscribed with the word "Mossad," the name of Israel's intelligence agency.

It depicts another figure with the sidelocks associated with Orthodox Jews, fangs and bloodshot eyes, and wearing a black hat with the SS insignia.

Controversial depiction at Documenta
Depictions like this one of antisemitic sterotypes have been slammed by Jewish groupsImage: Uwe Zucchi/dpa/picture alliance

Reaction was swift: Politicians, representatives of Jewish organizations, and even the Israeli Embassy in Berlin slammed the installation.

On Monday, documenta general director Sabine Schormann said she regretted the fact that the art installation had hurt feelings. In what she said was a joint decision with the creators of the mural, Indonesian artist collective Taring Padi, the work would be covered up and an explanatory note added.

"People's Justice" should now be a symbol of the dialogue that is impossible at the moment, the Taring Padi group said, expressing regret that their work "is perceived as offensive in this particular context in Germany."

Helpless justification despite warnings

But it's not just about Germany. The depictions on the mural serve up the most nasty antisemitic stereotypes, which have sparked widespread outrage far beyond Germany.

The documenta director's claim that artworks cannot be submitted in advance for examination is nothing but a helpless justification.

In the run-up to the event, all criticism over the selection of certain artistic groups for alleged antisemitic tendencies was rejected, including by documenta organizers. An opportunity for dialogue was missed when the planned discussion series, "We need to talk," which was meant to discuss the right to artistic freedom in the face of racism, antisemitism and Islamophobia, was called off in May.

There had already been warnings for months, mainly from the Central Council of Jews in Germany, which now sees itself vindicated.

Kieselbach Sabine Kommentarbild App
DW's Sabine Kieselbach

Even before the scandal broke, there had been fierce criticism of the works of a Palestinian artists' group, which equated the actions of the Israeli army in the Gaza Strip with those of the Wehrmacht in Guernica, Spain.

Scandal has damaged participating artists

Is documenta as a whole antisemitic? No. But the scandal has caused immense damage, especially to the 1,700 or so artists from around the world who wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to offer people in Kassel a new, non-Western perspective on art. They wanted to steer discussions at this year's documenta toward justice, equality, democracy and capitalism — topics that have now been overshadowed by the scandal.

So where do things go from here? In a statement on Tuesday, German Minister of State for Culture and Media Claudia Roth, whose ministry is one of the main sponsors of documenta, announced that it would not be enough to merely cover up the incriminated work of art.

Shortly after that, documenta announced that the offending artwork would be removed completely. This, Roth said, could only be a first step. She did not say what the next might be, or whether heads would have to roll.

Not a typical German debate

It's clear that the concept of this year's documenta got out of hand for organizers. And even politicians, like Claudia Roth and the state of Hesse's Minister of Culture Angela Dorn, thought for too long that they could stay out of the debate.

That's because almost every edition of the documenta in the past has triggered heated controversies. But warnings of anti-Semitic tendencies should have set alarm bells ringing. Instead, the objections were dismissed as a typical German debate. That was a mistake.

Especially since that also dashed the hopes of artists from the Global South of entering into a dialogue with the North. After all, documenta is considered one of the most important exhibitions of contemporary art in the world. What a shame.

This opinion piece was originally written in German