Banner being removed at German art show after charges of antisemitism

BERLIN — An Indonesian art collective’s banner that was widely criticized as containing antisemitic elements was covered up at a major art show in Germany and was to be taken down on Tuesday, officials said.

The Documenta art show has been clouded in controversy for months over its inclusion of a Palestinian artists’ group strongly critical of the Israeli occupation.

The large installation by Taring Padi, titled “People’s Justice,” drew objections after it was put up in a central square in the city of Kassel as part of the Documenta contemporary art show.

Criticism centered on the depiction on the banner of a soldier with the face of a pig, wearing a neckerchief with a Star of David and a helmet inscribed with the word “Mossad,” the name of Israel’s intelligence agency.

In the same work, a man is depicted with sidelocks often associated with Orthodox Jews, fangs, and bloodshot eyes, and wearing a black hat with the SS insignia.

On Monday, the Israeli Embassy in Berlin said it was “appalled by the antisemitic elements” that were being shown in Kassel and called for their immediate removal from the exhibition. It said that “they have absolutely nothing to do with free expression of opinion, but are an expression of an old-style antisemitism.”

“Elements being portrayed in certain exhibits are reminiscent of propaganda used by Goebbels and his goons during darker times in German history,” it added. “All red lines have not only been crossed — they have been shattered.”

Visitors cue in front of the museum Fridericianum during the press preview of the Documenta 15, the world’s most significant exhibition of contemporary art, in Kassel, Germany, June 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

Organizers said Monday — three days after it went up — that the work would be covered up, in what they said was a joint decision with the art collective. On Tuesday, Kassel Mayor Christian Geselle said that it would be taken down altogether during the day.

Germany’s culture minister, Claudia Roth, said in a statement that its removal was “overdue” and “is only a first step.”

“More must follow,” she added. “It must be cleared up how it was possible for this mural with antisemitic figurative elements to be installed there.”

This year’s Documenta opened on Saturday.

In a statement posted on its Facebook page after the decision to cover the banner, Taring Padi insisted that the work — which it said was first exhibited at the South Australia Art Festival in Adelaide 20 years ago — “is in no way related” to antisemitism.

It said “all of the figures depicted on the banner refer to symbolism that is widespread in Indonesia’s political context.”

“We are sorry that details of this banner are misunderstood other than their original purpose. We apologize for the injuries caused in this context,” it said.

Documenta, held in the German city of Kassel, includes the works of more than 1,500 participants.

For the first time since its launch in 1955, the show is being curated by a collective, Indonesia’s Ruangrupa.

But even in the run-up to the show’s opening this weekend, the group has come under fire for including the collective called “The Question of Funding,” over its links to the BDS boycott Israel movement.

BDS was branded antisemitic by the German parliament in 2019 and barred from receiving federal funds. Around half of Documenta’s 42 million euro ($44 million) budget comes from public funds.

Opening the exhibition this weekend, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he had considered skipping the event.

“While some criticism is justified of Israeli policies, such as on settlement building,” he said, the recognition of the Israeli state is “the basis and prerequisite of the debate” in Germany.


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