The German town of Kassel is bustling with international visitors as it readies for the June 18 opening of Documenta, one of the world’s most prestigious contemporary art shows. Founded in 1955 and taking place every five years, Documenta will appear in its 15th iteration, this time curated by an Indonesian artists’ collective called Ruangrupa, which translates loosely as “art space.”
All over town, Ruangrupa is showcasing artists whose themes touch on collectivity, equity, community-based practice and sustainability. In line with a general emphasis on postcolonialism in contemporary art, the focus is clearly non-Eurocentric. Participants hail from countries including Haiti, Indonesia, Mali, Cambodia, Kenya, Algeria, Syria’s autonomous region of Rojava, Trinidad, and Uzbekistan, among many others.
But while artistic displays pepper the area, many have their eyes on a debate about the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, antisemitism, and Islamophobia that has been raging since January.
The controversy began when a blog post by a little-known local group called the Kassel Alliance Against Antisemitism suddenly made headlines in the German media. In the text, the Kassel group accused Documenta organizers of anti-Zionism and antisemitism, listing the names of curators and artists participating in the show who support BDS, and pointing out the anti-Israel activities of members of a Palestinian artists’ collective taking part in Documenta.
In 2019, the German government passed a non-binding condemnation of the BDS movement as antisemitic that stopped short of an outright ban. Ahead of Documenta, critics and some German media are asking whether a state-funded German institution should be inviting curators and artists who support a cultural boycott of Israel.
Documenta curators and organizers strongly denied the accusation of antisemitism, without going into any specific allegations.
This may be because the blog post, while decrying antisemitism, itself used racist imagery and language, such as comparing the lumbung — a communal Indonesian rice barn used by Ruangrupa as a metaphor for Documenta — to the lumumba, a cocktail whose name is theorized to be rooted in racism.
In addition, the author of the blog post, Jonas Dörge, has also been accused of having questionable views on Islam (German link), and at least one of the many newspaper articles subsequently published in the German media had racist undertones.
Still, five of the 10 Ruangrupa curators had indeed signed an anti-Israel missive titled “A letter against apartheid,” along with a number of Palestinian artists participating in Documenta. Published during the 2021 Gaza-Israel conflict, the letter condemns Israel as a “colonizing power” since its inception and urges a trade, economic and cultural boycott of the Jewish state.
Members of the Ruangrupa declined to comment for this article, as did Documenta organizers. The press office of the German Culture Ministry, which co-funds Documenta, turned down an interview request as well.
Natan Sznaider, an Israeli sociology professor who was born in Germany, will be taking part in upcoming Documenta events. Sznaider is an expert on Holocaust remembrance and postcolonialism.
“As Israelis, we shouldn’t reproach Palestinians for their affinity to BDS,” Sznaider said. “If at all, critique needs to be directed at the organizers of Documenta. I think they were genuinely surprised. They wanted a progressive show in the context of postcolonial, non-Western art and somehow forgot what they have there in the baggage.”
It can be noted that harsh anti-Israel views are far from scarce in the upper echelons of the German cultural milieu; Soh Bejeng Ndikung, director of the influential, state-funded House of World Cultures in Berlin was also among the signatories of the 2021 anti-Israel letter.
After the controversy began attracting media attention, Documenta organizers planned a round of public discussions about “the role of art and artistic freedom in the face of rising antisemitism, racism, and Islamophobia,” according to the Documenta website. Organizers were dedicating one out of the three panels to anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian racism, the website said, because debate surrounding the upcoming show has been “permeated by anti-Palestinian prejudices.”
Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, in turn wrote a letter to German Culture Minister Claudia Roth, parts of which were subsequently published in the media.
In the letter, Schuster criticized the content and panelists of the planned talks. He later told the Jüdische Allgemeine newspaper that the panels “did not do enough justice to the problem of antisemitic tendencies in cultural institutions.”
Schuster added that “the discussion on postcolonialism in Germany deserves special attention when anti-Israel perspectives, accompanied by antisemitism — as they frequently are — are thoughtlessly accepted. Documenta, which explicitly invited the so-called ‘Global South’ and its discourses, lacks this sensibility.”
Following Schuster’s critique, at least one of the invitees called off their participation in the panel. Then, in early May, Documenta announced that it was suspending the talks altogether. Instead, the Ruangrupa and Documenta organizers defended their position in a letter that was published in the media (though none of the latter group signed the letter individually).
The letter called the allegations “rumors” and portrayed them as a racist campaign of delegitimization. Participants’ BDS support isn’t mentioned, though “BDS-proximity” is denied. It also said that accusations of antisemitism are used to end careers and called the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism — which was adopted by the German parliament — contentious, especially regarding Israel-related antisemitism.
Sznaider believes that the Documenta debate, along with the choice of art being showcased, should be seen in the context of a changing discourse in Germany. The country is undergoing a renewal and finally beginning to see itself as the migrant society that it is, he said.
“There is a new German cultural elite that wants to be less provincial, and that includes being more open towards the Palestinians, being less ‘careful’ with Jews, and also being permitted to question the mainstream politics of Shoah remembrance,” Sznaider said.
“In that cultural setting,” he said, “counter-arguments are wrongly seen as belonging to an outdated discourse.”
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