Documenta Leader Speaks Out on Controversial Banner: ‘Anti-Semitic Depictions Must Have No Place in Germany’

Documenta, the famed recurring art show in Kassel, Germany, kicked off its 15th edition this week with faintly positive reviews—and a controversy revolving around a banner that many said contained anti-Semitic imagery.

After Documenta leaders initially made the decision to drape the piece in black fabric, officials with city of Kassel said the piece by the Indonesian collective Taring Padi would be removed altogether. While Documenta has not been shy in apologizing for putting the piece on view, the quinquennial’s leader director, Sabine Schormann, issued a follow-up statement on Tuesday further explaining how she and ruangrupa, the collective that curated this year’s show, arrived at the decision to tow away the piece.

“Together with ruangrupa, the Artistic Team and the participating artists, we have assured that there will be no anti-Semitic content at documenta fifteen,” Schormann said in her statement, which was posted to Documenta’s site. “Otherwise we would intervene immediately. Unfortunately, we did not keep this promise. This should not have happened.”

The Taring Padi work was a 60-foot-long banner called People’s Justice, which was initially made in 2002 for an Australian art festival. The piece was a meditation on the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia that included a Mossad agent with a pig’s head and a male figure that was widely viewed as an anti-Semitic caricature of a Jew.

Various German officials, including culture minister Claudia Roth, decried the piece as being anti-Semitic and called for Documenta to take action. On Monday, the show swiftly responded by concealing People’s Justice, a move that Documenta said was done in collaboration with Taring Padi itself, and adding a text that was intended to elucidate the Indonesian context for the work. Taring Padi also apologized for creating People’s Justice and made a plea for a “new dialogue.”

Documenta has been embroiled in controversy for the past few months over the inclusion of the Palestinian collective the Question of Funding, which certain Jewish groups in the country have perceived as an anti-Semitic gesture. In May, the Question of Funding’s exhibition space was vandalized with a spray-painted message that ruangrupa called a “death threat.”

ruangrupa’s show has been considered notable because it is predominantly composed of collectives based in the Global South, a region whose artists have historically been under-represented at major biennials of Documenta’s stature. But, in her statement on Tuesday, Schormann wrote that this more inclusive focus was no excuse for the content of the Taring Padi work.

“Anti-Semitic depictions must have no place in Germany, not even in an art show with a global scope,” she said. “This also applies expressly with all understanding for the concerns of the global south and the visual language used there. With respect for the diversity of cultural backgrounds, the dialogue that began with documenta fifteen will be continued.”

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