Germany: Accusations of anti-Semitism at Documenta fair cause scandal

Germany: Accusations of anti-Semitism at Documenta fair cause scandal

VHere is a controversy including the Documenta, an exhibition of modern and contemporary art which is held every five years in Cassel, in the Land of Hesse, it would certainly have gone well. First scandal: the collective of Indonesian artists Ruangrupa, founded in 2000 in Jakarta and in charge of artistic direction this year, has not invited any Israeli among the 1,500 artists who will exhibit until September 26. It is hard to believe that this is an involuntary omission and not a deliberate boycott: it is no secret that Ruangrupa sympathizes with BDS, the pro-Palestinian movement created in 2015 which calls around the world to “boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel”. In 2019, the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, distanced itself from BDS and deemed its methods and argumentation anti-Semitic.

In addition, several Palestinian works exhibited at Documenta unequivocally condemn the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. Palestinian artist Mohammed Al Hawajri’s “Gaza-Guernica” collage draws a parallel between the Luftwaffe, which bombed the small Spanish town in 1937, and the Israeli army’s anti-terror units today. Another table shows The Reapers of Van Gogh about to be attacked by an Israeli army combat unit.

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Critics are flying everywhere. Why did the German authorities responsible for Documenta not – beforehand – clarify things and call the Indonesian collective to order? His mission, however, was promising. By calling on a group from Asia and not, as usual, on a European or American curator, the largest and most important international exhibition for contemporary art made the daring bet of open up even more to the world. The pro-Palestinian sympathies of the Indonesian collective (a country which does not recognize the existence of Israel) were however known to all. President Frank-Walter Steinmeier says he hesitated, but ended up deciding to come and inaugurate Documenta last Saturday. “It is striking, he underlined in his speech, that in this important exhibition of contemporary artists, no Israeli artist is represented. He recalled that “freedom of expression and artistic freedom are two pillars of our Constitution. It is permissible to criticize Israeli policy, but a line is crossed when this criticism calls into question the existence of the State of Israel”.

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The presence of works clearly anti-Semitic exposed at the very last minute made the position of the organizers, Indonesians and Germans, untenable. A placard by the Indonesian artist collective Taring Padi installed just before the inauguration at the entrance to the main exhibition hall depicts a battle scene. Some characters seem straight out of the Sturmer, the Nazi newspaper famous for its anti-Semitic cartoons. We see a man with long teeth and a big cigar wearing a bowler hat who wears the “SS” insignia. And a pig dressed as a soldier who wears the Star of David and is wearing a helmet marked “Mossad”, the israeli intelligence service. A representation all the more scandalous as Germany has just been made aware of it. In Wittenberg, the city of Luther, a bas-relief of the cathedral representing a sow, symbol designating the Jews in the Middle Ages, has been debated for weeks. This cupboard is therefore the last straw that made an already full vase overflow. The Israeli embassy demands that it be withdrawn and the pressure increases so that the politicians finally draw the consequences.

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This scandal is all the more shocking since Documenta was created in 1955, in the aftermath of the war to free Germany, where the Nazi regime had just banished modern art deemed “degenerate”, from its isolation. Documenta was meant to be an antidote to narrow-mindedness and to promote tolerance and dialogue.

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