Home Art & Culture Documenta removes art after accusations of anti-Semitism

Documenta removes art after accusations of anti-Semitism

by YAR

Even before Documenta opened on Saturday in Kassel, Germany, the renowned contemporary art exhibition had been roiled with controversy over the inclusion of artists who have criticized Israel. Now, just four days after the 100-day exhibition, which runs until September 16, its organizers said Tuesday they would remove a work that “triggers anti-Semitic readings” after an outcry from lawmakers and diplomats.

That piece, a nearly 60-foot-long painted banner called “People’s Justice,” was created by the Indonesian collective Taring Padi in 2002, when its members included activists who had fought under Indonesia’s military dictatorship. The banner’s animated and cartoonish representation of political resistance involves hundreds of individual figures.

Two of those figures sparked outrage on Monday after photos of them circulated on social media. One was a man with side locks and fangs, wearing a hat adorned with a Nazi emblem. The other was a pig-headed soldier, wearing a Star of David bandanna and a helmet with the word “Mossad,” the name of Israel’s security service, written on it. (Other figures on the job were identified as members of the intelligence forces, including Britain’s MI5 agency and the KGB.)

The Israeli embassy in Germany said in a series of tweets that Documenta was promoting “Goebbels-style propaganda,” a reference to the Nazis’ chief propagandist. Claudia Roth, Germany’s culture minister, said in a statement posted on social media“In my opinion, these are anti-Semitic images.”

“This is where artistic freedom finds its limits,” he added. Within hours of those comments, Documenta had covered the job with sheets of black cloth.

Taring Padi said in a press release issued by Documenta organizers on Monday that the work was “not intended to be related in any way to anti-Semitism” and that he was “saddened that the details in this poster are understood differently than its original purpose.” The work was a commentary on the “militarism and violence” Indonesians experienced during the 32-year Suharto dictatorship, which ended in 1998, the collective said. “We apologize for the damage caused,” added Taring Padi. “There is no record in our work that aims to portray any ethnic group in a negative light.”

But Documenta’s decision to hide “Popular Justice” did not end the controversy, which spread throughout Tuesday on social networks, radio and television. The exhibition’s supervisory board, which includes the mayor of Kassel, Christian Geselle, met and decided to withdraw the artwork, according to a press release from the city authorities late in the afternoon.

Held every five years, Documenta is widely regarded as one of the art world’s most important events, rivaled only by the Venice Biennale. This year’s edition, the 15th, is curated by ruangrupa, another Indonesian art collective. Ruangrupa invited another 14 artist groups to participate; those groups then invited more collectives to join. Most of the participating artists are from the Global South, with few participants from Europe and the United States.

In January, a protest group called the Alliance Against Antisemitism Kassel accused ruangrupa of supporting the boycott of Israel and also questioned the inclusion in the exhibition of a Palestinian art collective called The Question of Funding, who the alliance said were also sympathetic. . Soon, German newspaper columnists and politicians picked up on those concerns.

In May, Felix Klein, the German government official in charge of combating anti-Semitism, criticized the lack of Israeli artists in Documenta’s programming. The same month, intruders sprayed graffiti on the exhibition space that was scheduled to house The Question of Funding work.

By the exhibition preview days last week, as journalists and art world insiders took a peek at the show, the anti-Semitism debate seemed to have receded. But the issue came up again at the event’s opening ceremony on Saturday, when President Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany brought it up repeatedly in a speech. “I want to be frank: I wasn’t sure in the last few weeks if I would be here with you today,” he said. Artistic freedom was at the heart of Germany’s constitution, he added, and criticism of the Israeli government was allowed. But, he added, it was “surprising that no Jewish artist from Israel is represented in this major exhibition of contemporary art.”

Steinmeier did not mention “Popular Justice”, which was only installed on Friday, the last day of the Documenta preview. Yet just two days later he was at the center of the debate.

The pressure on Documenta’s organizers is unlikely to end with the work being withdrawn. Charlotte Knobloch, former president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said in a phone interview on Tuesday that “anti-Semitism was not taken seriously as an issue in the run-up to the event,” and more action was also needed on the exhibit. Sabine Schormann, Documenta’s CEO, should resign, Knobloch said, and the organization as a whole should undertake a “search of conscience.”

Documenta organizers ruangrupa and Taring Padi said through a spokeswoman that they were not immediately available for comment.

On Tuesday, Roth, Germany’s culture minister, said in a statement that the removal of the painting was “only the first step,” adding that there must be “additional consequences: it must be clarified how it was possible that this mural with anti-Semitic images was installed there.”

Documenta organizers and curators must “immediately verify” that there are no other anti-Semitic images in any other works on display, Roth added. “The protection of human dignity, the protection against anti-Semitism, against racism and any form of inhumanity is the basis of our coexistence,” she said.



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