German Documenta art fair chief quits in anti-Semitism row

Documenta 15 venue in Kassel, 18 Jun 22

The director of a world-famous German art show has quit in a row over an artwork condemned as anti-Semitic.

The Documenta 15 show in Kassel briefly included a mural showing a soldier with a pig’s head and a Star of David.

The mural also depicted a character with fangs, Jewish Orthodox-style sidelocks and a hat labelled “SS”. It was done by an Indonesian art group. There was an outcry soon after the show opened last month.

Director Sabine Schormann has now resigned. She has apologised for not recognizing the mural’s anti-Semitism. An interim successor is to be appointed, as the art fair runs until 25 September.

The scandal is especially sensitive in Germany because of Nazi Germany’s genocide against the Jews in the 20th Century, known as the Holocaust. Documenta is held every five years in Kassel, and is regarded as a top showcase for modern art, like the Venice Biennale.

Sabine Schormann, 15 Jun 22
Sabine Schormann

The Documenta supervisory board expressed “profound dismay” that at the opening weekend “clearly anti-Semitic motifs were on display”.

The offending mural was called “People’s Justice”, by the Taring Padi art group. It was covered up and then taken down after the row erupted last month.

The board’s statement said the mural “clearly crossed a line and thereby caused considerable harm to Documenta”. For the first time the Documenta show is being curated by an Indonesian art collective, Ruangrupa.

They have apologised, saying “we collectively failed to spot the figure in the work, which is a character that evokes classical stereotypes of anti-Semitism”.

“We acknowledge that this was our error. In consultation with Taring Padi we are in support of the decision to take down the work.” Ruangrupa continued: “We apologise for the disappointment, shame, frustration, betrayal, and shock this stereotype has caused the viewers and the whole team who has worked hard alongside us”.

Earlier, on 20 June, the Israeli embassy in Berlin protested over the exhibit, saying “Documenta is promoting Goebbels-style propaganda”, with some exhibits “evoking the dark chapters of German history”. “This not only crossed all red lines, but smashed them to pieces.”

Joseph Goebbels was Adolf Hitler’s propaganda minister, who directed the Nazis’ campaign of hate against the Jews.

At the opening of Documenta 15 the German President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, questioned why Israeli artists were not participating. “It is striking that apparently no Jewish artists or artists from Israel are represented at this major exhibition of contemporary art,” he said.

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance defines anti-Semitism as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews”.

It also says “rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

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