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Olu Oguibe, Monument to Strangers and Refugees (detail), 2017.

Documenta Obelisk at Center of Controversy as City Considers Its Relocation

After agreeing to sell an obelisk made for last year’s Documenta at a discounted price, the Nigerian-born, US-based artist Olu Oguibe is now clashing with the city of Kassel over the work’s permanent location. Last January, the artist and Kassel started a fundraiser for $750,000 in order to pay for Monument to Strangers and Refugees, 2017, an obelisk inscribed with the phrase “I was a stranger and you took me in” (Matthew 25:35) in four different languages. After the crowdfunding campaign only reached around $89,000, Oguibe agreed to let the city have the work—which was specifically designed for Kassel’s central Königsplatz (King’s Square)—at a reduced price. Now, after Kassel suggested relocating the work to Holländische Platz, or Dutch Square—which is near the University of Kassel—a dispute has erupted about the artwork’s permanent home. Oguibe seems fixed on giving the city an ultimatum: keep the work in situ, or no deal.

Amid a rising tide of nationalism in Germany, the work serves as a fifty-four-foot concrete welcoming gesture—a bulwark against the xenophobia that has led to the refusal of refugees fleeing their homelands. “The site and the work go together,” Alexander Koch, of the art gallery KOW in Berlin, told the Art Newspaper. “Obelisks and kings have something to do with each other. The Dutch and obelisks, not so much.” Koch said that the obelisk might be sold to another city—plenty have expressed interest in purchasing the work—if Kassel refuses to keep it at its original site. In that case, donors to the fundraiser would be refunded.

The reasons the city wants to move Monument to Strangers and Refugees remain contested. While Koch claims the city said it wanted to keep the public space open for future Documenta projects, Oguibe believes the city is capitulating to pressures from the right-wing extremist party AfD, whose presence in the country’s parliament has recently increased (Kassel denies that AfD has anything to do with the possible relocation). Last year, members of the party inveighed against Oguibe’s sculpture, calling it “disfigured art,” a phrase that recalls “degenerate art,” a label the Nazis used for modern art. The work was attacked by a politically motivated vandal earlier this year. Last summer, Oguibe won Documenta’s Arnold-Bode Prize for the sculpture, which the awarding committee declared “an affirmation of the timeless, universal principles of attention and care towards all those affected by flight and persecution.”

UPDATE [June 6, 6:00 PM]: According to Oguibe, the city of Kassel is planning on dismantling the work until it finds a suitable location. During a May 17 city culture committee meeting, Kassel chief culture official Susanne Völker allegedly said that the city did not have a site in mind for his sculpture, and would keep it uninstalled until the proposed Documenta Institute is built.

“There is no guarantee as to whether or not the Institute will be built, or indeed, when, and there’s no firm location for it,” Oguibe told artforum.com. “In effect, the plan of the city is simply to purchase the obelisk, take it apart, lock it up in storage, and forget it.”

In a statement given to Hyperallergic last week, Völker said the desire to remove the obelisk from Königsplatz had nothing to do with pressure from Germany's anti-immigrant rightwing party, and that Oguibe “might have gotten this impression due to some readers’ comments on the online outlet from the local daily, HNA.” The artist denies this suggestion, and has shown artforum.com correspondence with an SPD politician in Kassel asking Oguibe to accept relocation of the work to Holländische Platz, lest there be “problems with right parties.” Oguibe asked that the politician be kept anonymous. "This isn’t something that I conjectured,” he said of the AfD's apparent influence on the situation. “We didn't make it up.” He added that Völker has repeatedly refused to mediate between KOW—who is representing Oguibe in the purchase—and the city. 

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