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Explained: Why has a world-renowned German exhibition taken down an Indonesian artwork?

The controversial work depicted what the German art magazine Monopol described as, "a caricature of a Jew with sidelocks, a cigar, and SS symbols on his hat".

Written by Vandana Kalra , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: June 24, 2022 2:04:37 pm
A visitor walks past a huge painting by the Indonesian art collective Taring Padi shown at a former indoor public swimming pool during the opening day of the 100-days-long world-known art show 'Documenta Fifteen' art fair in Kassel, Germany, June 18, 2022. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay

An artwork by Indonesian art collective Taring Padi recently faced severe criticism for its anti-Semitic imagery soon after it went on display at the prestigious Documenta art exhibition in Kassel, Germany.

One of the world’s most feted contemporary art events, held every five years, the Documenta’s 15th edition opened on June 18 and features more than 1,500 participants from across the world. A look at the work in question, and why is it being criticised?

What does the controversial work depict?

The controversial work that was initially covered and later removed from display was part of a large banner installation titled “People’s Justice”. It depicted, what the German art magazine Monopol described as, “a caricature of a Jew with sidelocks, a cigar, and SS symbols on his hat”.

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immigration image

First displayed at a 2002 art festival in Adelaide, the mural features a soldier-like figure, wearing Star of David and a scarf, depicted as a pig and wearing a helmet with ‘Mossad’ written on it. Another figure is depicted with the sidelocks associated with orthodox Jews, fangs and red eyes, and wearing a black hat with a SS insignia.

The criticism

In a series of tweets, Israel’s embassy in Germany stated that Documenta was promoting “Goebbels-style propaganda”.

“We are outraged by the anti-Semitic elements being shown publicly at Documenta 15, which is currently taking place in Kassel,” it added.

In Germany, support came from Claudia Roth, the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and Media, who described the imagery as “anti-Semitic”. In a statement on social media, she noted, “This is where artistic freedom finds its limits.”

The defence

Taring Padi, a collective of underground artists from Yogyakarta in Indonesia, formed in 1998, put out an explanatory note on the Documenta website, where the group stated, “The banner installation ‘People’s Justice’ (2002) is a campaign against the militarism and violence we experienced during the military dictatorship of Suharto for 32 years in Indonesia, and its legacy as it exists through the present day. Therefore, the depiction of military figures in the banner expresses our experiences. As such, all figures depicted in the banner reference commonly-known symbols within the Indonesian political context, for example corrupt bureaucracy, military generals and their soldiers which are symbolized by pigs, dogs, and rats to criticize an exploitative capitalist system and military violence.”

They added, “It is not meant to be related in any way to antisemitism. We are saddened that details in this banner are understood differently from its original purpose. We apologize for the hurt caused in this context. Therefore, with great regret, we cover up the work. This work then becomes a monument of mourning for the impossibility of dialogue at this moment. This monument, we hope, will be the starting point for a new dialogue.”

Criticism in run-up to the event

Curated by a collective, Indonesia’s Ruangrupa, for the first time since its launch, this edition of Documenta is being criticised for months over allegations of racism and antisemitism.

In May, racist graffiti was reportedly sprayed inside Documenta’s curatorial offices in Kassel, after a break-in.

Earlier in January, a row broke out over participation of a Palestinian artist group – The Question of Funding. The group was accused of being linked to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement that was termed as anti-Semitic by the German parliament in 2019 and barred from receiving federal funds.

Opening the exhibition, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier had said the organisers of this year’s show needed to do more to tackle the antisemitism allegations surrounding the event.

He had pointed out, “It is striking that apparently no Jewish artists or artists from Israel are represented at this major exhibition of contemporary art,” adding that “criticism of Israeli policy is permissible. But a line is crossed when criticism of Israel gives way to questioning its existence”.

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