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Chief of German art festival quits after antisemitic works go on display

Banner is removed after backlash; board calls out showing of piece by Indonesian collective as ‘clear transgression’ that caused damage to event

Part of a mural by Indonesian art group Taring Padi on display at the Documenta 15 art festival. On the right, a man is depicted with sidelocks often associated with Orthodox Jews, fangs and bloodshot eyes, and is wearing a black hat with the SS-insignia. (Screen capture/Twitter)
Part of a mural by Indonesian art group Taring Padi on display at the Documenta 15 art festival. On the right, a man is depicted with sidelocks often associated with Orthodox Jews, fangs and bloodshot eyes, and is wearing a black hat with the SS-insignia. (Screen capture/Twitter)

BERLIN — The head of a major art show in Germany has resigned after an exhibit featuring antisemitic elements prompted an outcry at the event’s opening last month.

The board of the Documenta 15 show said Saturday that Sabine Schormann was leaving her post as chief executive by mutual agreement. It also expressed regret about what it described as “unambiguously antisemitic motifs” visible in one of the works shown at the opening weekend.

“The presentation of the banner ‘People’s Justice’ by the artists collective Taring Padi with its antisemitic imagery was a clear transgression and thereby caused significant harm to the Documenta,” the board said.

The banner featured 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. It was taken down within days after widespread criticism from Jewish groups and German and Israeli officials.

The Taring Padi collective, based in Indonesia, has already apologized for the incident. It said the work — which it said was first exhibited at the South Australia Art Festival in Adelaide 20 years ago — was “in no way related” to antisemitism, but instead referred to the post-1965 dictatorship in Indonesia.

“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 last month.

Illustrative: Visitors walk past a display during the press preview of Documenta 15, one of the world’s most significant exhibition of contemporary art, in Kassel, Germany, Wednesday, June 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

It acknowledged that the incident followed months of debate about alleged antisemitism, which it and the show’s organizers had strongly rejected.

Germany’s president raised the issue of antisemitism during his speech at the show’s opening, saying there were “limits” to what artists can do when they address political issues in a country still atoning for the Holocaust.

The board of the Documenta, which is staged every four years in the central German city of Kassel, has called for a swift investigation into the incident.

The festival also faced backlash over the inclusion of a Palestinian artist group strongly critical of Israel.

An anonymous blog posted by an “Alliance Against Anti-Semitism Kassel” in January accused the collective called The Question of Funding of having links to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) 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 the public purse.

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)

The Documenta festival began in 1955 in Kassel, which was home to a vast forced labor camp during World War II and was heavily bombed by the Allies.

It aimed to put Germany back on the cultural map after the Nazis’ campaign to crush the avant-garde.

Documenta now ranks with the Biennale in Venice among the world’s premier showcases of contemporary art.

The exhibition will run until September 25.

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