On Tuesday evening in Kassel, Germany, where the Documenta International Contemporary Art Exhibition is taking place, the controversial mural “People’s Justice” was removed amid noisy, whistling and applause from the audience.
The work by Indonesian art collective Taring Padi, originally exhibited in Australia in 2002, depicts a soldier-like figure as a pig, with a star of David and a helmet bearing the word “Mossad” – a symbol of Israel. Name of the National Intelligence Agency.
Antisemitic tropes are also evident in another figure depicted in the work. In that figure, wearing a black hat with the Nazi “SS” insignia, are sidelocks – as associated with Orthodox Jews – with fangs and bloodshot eyes.
Germany’s Minister of State for Culture and Media, Claudia Roth, said in a statement that the removal of the artwork was “overdue” and “is only a first step … and more should follow.” He questioned “how it was possible for this mural to install anti-Semitic figurative elements.”
“Antisemitic depiction should have no place in Germany, not even in an art show with a global scope,” Documenta director Sabine Schormann said in a statement published Tuesday. People’s justice was being snatched away. According to media reports, the union of Jewish communities in the state of Lower Saxony has meanwhile demanded the exhibition director Schorman resign from his post.
Covering Artwork Isn’t Enough
The outrage over the piece only started to pour in since the exhibition officially opened on Saturday. On Monday it was concealed with a black dress and an explanatory statement. However, this was deemed unacceptable by Jewish community groups.
“It is absurd to attach footnotes,” said Charlotte Knobloch, president of the Jewish Community of Munich and Upper Bavaria in southern Germany.
Sabine Shoreman joins Indonesian art collective Ruangrupa as Documenta curators to “explicitly apologize” for not recognizing the antisemitic depiction before the artwork was installed.
The Israeli embassy in Germany stated that it was “absorbed by opposing elements publicly displayed” in the exhibition, adding that it “reminds the propaganda used by Goebbels and his hooligans during a dark time in German history”. . “
‘Where Artistic Freedom Ends’
Antisemitism researcher Wolfgang Benz, former director of the Center for Research on Antisemitism (ZfA) at the Technical University of Berlin, criticized the Documenta organizers for giving their guest curators too much control.
“With a political and historical responsibility, I will investigate whether anything in this exhibition violates human rights, whether anything offends Jews or other minorities,” he told the Tagespigel daily newspaper.
“Artistic freedom ends,” he said, when an artwork violates those ideas.
The mayor of Kassel, Christian Gesele, said he was embarrassed by the incident, adding that “what should not have happened has happened.” Angela Dorn-Ranke, the Minister of State for Higher Education, Research, Science and the Arts in Hesse – where the Kassel is located – said, “I am angry, I am disappointed.” He also said that the incident would damage the reputation of the documenta.
Indonesian artist-curators hope to continue dialogue
Meanwhile, Documenta director Sabine Schorman reiterated that despite “the concerns of the Global South and the understanding of the visual language used there”, the anti-Semitic portrayal was a red line for her.
Artists from the Indonesian Taring Padi collective apologized for the “injury caused” and said on Monday that the work was “in no way related to antisemitism.” Instead, it was “part of a campaign against militarism and violence during Suharto’s 32-year military dictatorship in Indonesia.”
Shoreman and Documenta’s curator, who invites 1,500 exhibitors from the Global South, say they hope to maintain creative dialogue throughout the five-year art exhibition.
“With respect to the diversity of cultural backgrounds, the conversation that began with Documenta 15 will continue,” he said in a statement.