Germany’s Federal Chancellor has pulled out of a visit to a major contemporary art exhibition in the city of Kassel to protest the presence of grossly anti-Semitic imagery in a mural that was exhibited earlier this week.
A spokesman for Chancellor Olaf Scholz confirmed on Thursday that the German leader had canceled a planned visit to the Documenta festival, which is held in Kassel every five years. This year’s edition opened last weekend amid a storm of controversy over the support of its curators – an Indonesian artists’ collective called Ruangrupa – for the movement targeting the State of Israel with a comprehensive cultural and economic boycott.
The spokesperson said Scholz found the offensive images of the mural by Tarang Padi, a distinct group of Indonesian artists, “disgusting”.
The mural, titled “People’s Justice”, was first unveiled in 2002 to highlight the abuses of the Suharto dictatorship which ruled Indonesia with an iron fist from 1967 to 1998. However, alongside the depictions of military figures and bureaucrats who served Suharto, there are two anti-Semitic caricatures.
One image shows a man with a hooked nose and fangs wearing sideburns and a black hat traditionally associated with Orthodox Jews embossed with the letters “SS” – a reference to the Nazi paramilitary organization. A second image in the same mural showed a soldier wearing a helmet shaped like a pig’s head and emblazoned with the word “Mossad,” Israel’s intelligence agency.
The mural was covered on Monday evening before being entirely removed from the display on Tuesday. Scholz’s spokesperson said the Chancellor “considers it completely correct and appropriate to remove this poster”.
She added that Scholz “is a huge Documenta fan and probably hasn’t missed a Documenta in the last 30 years. But he decided not to visit this year’s edition.
The mural scandal, along with broader concerns about anti-Semitism and the demonization of Israel at the festival, has deeply shaken Germany’s Jewish community.
“Rarely has the Jewish community in Germany been so upset,” the Jewish newspaper said. Judische Allgemeine stated in a special editorial file. “No matter who this newspaper has spoken to in recent days – with Holocaust survivors, artists, civil servants, journalists or ordinary members of the community – the consternation, horror, even shock among German Jews are huge.”
The editorial went on to identify the people it believes were responsible for the scandal. “The fact that Documenta is now making headlines around the world with scandals of anti-Semitism instead of subtle artistic considerations is a matter – in addition to Documenta boss Sabine Schormann, Minister of Art of Hesse Angela Dorn and the mayor of Kassel Christian Geselle – above all the responsibility of the Minister of State for Culture Claudia Roth”, he argued.
The Central Council of German Jews, which had previously called for Schormann’s resignation, said Thursday that “Germany’s image in the world has already been damaged by this incident.” The organization is unlikely to have been appeased by a media interview Schormann gave on Wednesday, in which she admitted that ‘we broke our promise’ to ensure no anti-Semitic content was seen. at the festival. However, Schormann went on to say that it was “not management’s job to inspect and approve all work in advance” as that would be “against the spirit of Documenta”. .
Schormann also praised what she called “the wonderfully stimulating and inviting atmosphere of this Documenta”.
Bijan Djir-Sarai, secretary general of the liberal FDP party, told the Spiegel media that the Documenta festival was obliged to “relentlessly clarify how this shameful incident could have happened”.
“Anyone who approves of these inhuman failures should not be responsible for an internationally renowned cultural event in Germany,” he said.
Similar sentiments were expressed by Felix Klein, the federal commissioner for combating anti-Semitism, who criticized the festival earlier this week for failing to “credibly address” concerns about anti-Semitism.
“Documenta has lost a lot of faith in politics and the arts scene,” Klein said Thursday. He stressed that this development “did not happen all at once…the magnitude has only grown with the ongoing anti-Semitism allegations since the beginning of the year.”
For her part, Culture Minister Roth said on Thursday that the German government wants fundamental reform of the festival as a precondition for continued federal funding.
“The responsibilities between the management and the curators in particular, as well as the chairman of the supervisory board and the committees, must be clearly clarified and consequences must be drawn from this,” Roth wrote in a note seen by the German dpa. Press Agency.