On Tuesday evening in Kassel, Germany, where the Documenta International Contemporary Art Exhibition is taking place, the controversial mural “People’s Justice” was removed amidst noisy, whistling and applause from the audience.
The work by Indonesian art collective Taring Padi, originally exhibited in Australia in 2002, features a soldier-like figure depicted as a pig, with a Star of David and a helmet bearing the word “Mossad” – The name of Israel’s national intelligence agency.
Antisemitic tropes are also evident in another figure depicted in the work. In that figure, wearing a black hat with a Nazi “SS” insignia, has sidelocks – like those associated with Orthodox Jews – with fangs and bloodshot eyes.
Germany’s Minister of State for Culture and Media, Claudia Roth, said in a statement the removal of the artwork was “overdue” and “is only a first step … and more should follow.” He questioned “how it was possible to establish antisemitic figurative elements for this mural.”
“Antisemitic depictions 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 taken down. According to media reports, the Union of Jewish Communities in the State of Lower Saxony has meanwhile demanded the exhibition director Shorman resign from his position.
Covering Artwork Isn’t Enough
The outrage over the piece quickly began to sound after the exhibition officially opened on Saturday. On Monday it was concealed with a black dress and explanatory statement. However, this was deemed unacceptable by Jewish community groups.
“It is absurd to attach a footnote,” said Charlotte Knobloch, president of the Jewish community of Munich and Upper Bavaria in southern Germany.
Sabine Shoreman joins Documenta curators from Indonesian art collective Ruangrupa to “categorically apologize” for not recognizing the antisemitic depictions before the artwork was installed.
The Israeli embassy in Germany said it was “absorbed by opposing elements publicly displayed” at the exhibition, adding that it was “reminiscent of 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 something offends Jews or other minorities,” he told the Tagespigel daily newspaper.
“Artistic freedom ends,” he said, when an artwork violates those ideas.
Castle Mayor Christian Gesele said he was embarrassed by the incident, adding that “something that should not have happened has happened.” Angela Dorn-Ranke, Minister of State for Higher Education, Research, Science and the Arts in Hesse – where Kassel is located – said, “I am angry, I am disappointed.” She also said that the incident would damage Documenta’s reputation.
Indonesian artist-curators hope to continue dialogue
Meanwhile, Documenta director Sabine Schorman reiterated that the anti-Semitic portrayal was a red line for her, despite “the concerns of the Global South and the understanding for the visual language used there”.
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.