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Documenta 15, curated by the ruangrupa collective, has become a magnet for controversy. Photo: Documenta/Nicolas Wefers.
Documenta 15, curated by the ruangrupa collective, has become a magnet for controversy. Photo: Documenta/Nicolas Wefers.

Documenta Hit with New Allegations of Anti-Semitism

The curators of the contentious Documenta 15, which opened in Kassel, Germany, June 18, are facing the latest in a string of allegations that they have allowed the display of anti-Semitic work. The complaints this time focus on a 1988 brochure by the Archives des Luttes des Femmes en Algérie, an Algerian women’s collective that seeks to situate the struggle for independence in Algeria alongside other battles, including that between Palestine and Israel. The brochure contains a portrayal of an Israeli soldier whose face resembles that of a monkey, with a Star of David on his helmet. The figure, which is similar to others appearing in the pamphlet, is being kneed by a woman.

Among those who contend the work is anti-Semitic are the right-wing German Jewish organization Werteinitiative (ValuesInitiative) and the Jewish group Rias Hessen, which is based in Kassel’s home state of Hesse. Representatives for both Hesse and Kassel have called for the removal of works by the Archives des Luttes des Femmes en Algérie, as has German culture minister Claudia Roth, who at a July 28 press conference asserted, “It is right and proper that the partners of the Documenta have now asked the artistic direction to remove these drawings from the exhibition.” According to German daily Die Welt, a Documenta spokesperson confirmed that exhibition official had already reviewed the work and dismissed allegations that it was anti-Semitic, noting in a statement, “There is a clear reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but no illustrations of Jews as such.”

The 2022 iteration of the esteemed quinquennial, curated by the Indonesian collective ruangrupa, has been a magnet for controversy. The group in January were met with the first of many allegations that they were anti-Semitic. These accusations stemmed from the curators’ inclusion of several artists who, alongside Jewish signatories, had condemned Germany’s 2019 anti-BDS Resolution as a “threat to artistic freedom and freedom of speech.” The measure labels the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel as anti-Semitic and thus illegal, as anti-Semitism is a crime in Germany. The accusations followed ruangrupa in the run-up to the event’s opening, with the curators organizing a series of talks on the subject of artistic freedom that they abruptly canceled, after which a Documenta venue hosting a Palestinian collective was vandalized.

Days after the exhibition’s opening, a huge 2002 banner by Indonesian collective Tarang Padi titled People’s Justice and hung in one of Kassel’s main squares was found to contain anti-Semitic images, including that of a pig labeled as a member of Israel’s secret service, and a rendering of an Orthodox Jewish man sporting fangs and a black derby hat emblazoned  with the insignia of the Nazi SS. The work was initially covered up and then hastily removed. Both ruangrupa and Tarang Padi apologized for their part in the work’s inclusion, with ruangrupa’s Ade Darmawan going before Germany’s Bundestag to speak about the matter.

In early July, key adviser Miron Mendel, head of the Anne Frank Institute, cut ties with Documenta, and filmmaker Hito Steyerl removed her work from the show, telling the New York Times, “Documenta has let this debate eclipse everything else.” On July 16, Sabine Schormann stepped down from her post as director of Documenta. Two days later, ruangrupa and a number of artists participating in Documenta 15—including Tarang Padi, Archives des Luttes des Femmes en Algérie, and Question of Funding, the Palestinian collective whose space was vandalized—published on the e-flux platform an open letter in which they spoke out against discrimination and censorship and reminded the public of the racist and violent attacks they faced in their efforts to mount the exhibition.