Documenta, held every five years in Kassel, is the world’s most influential show of contemporary art. On 19 June, a day after the opening, an eight-metre-high banner titled People’s Justice, painted by the Indonesian art collective Taring Padi, was hung from a scaffold in Friedrichsplatz, Kassel’s central square. It was a massive piece of agitprop, a cartoon-like version of a Diego Rivera mural, depicting perpetrators and victims of the Suharto regime, beginning with the genocidal campaign of 1965-66 against real and imagined members of the Indonesian Communist Party, leftists and ethnic Chinese.
The banner was intended as a people’s tribunal, a calling to account. Taring Padi were student protesters in 1998, when a popular uprising – and bloody street fighting – finally brought Suharto down. They lost many friends to the violence. People’s Justice, created in 2002, was their collective response. It has been exhibited internationally several times, but until its unveiling in Kassel, no one seemed to have noticed that of the hundreds of figures in the painting, two were clearly antisemitic. There was outrage, and the banner was removed two days later. Many in the media celebrated the defeat of postcolonialism and declared the entire exhibition a national embarrassment. Some demanded the end of Documenta altogether. The German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, responded by warning ‘there are limits’ to artistic freedom when it comes to political issues. Chancellor Scholz announced that for the first time in thirty years he wouldn’t be going to the show. The culture minister, Claudia Roth, promised more state control. Finally, on 16 July, Documenta’s director, Sabine Schormann, resigned by ‘mutual agreement’ with the supervisory board.
When I visited, the weekend after the opening, the vast exhibition, spread across thirty-odd venues, was as empty as I have ever seen it. Still, there was a laid-back, ramshackle energy about it. There were loosely presented works in progress, scattered tents and other improvised structures showing videos, live performances, an artists’ dormitory, a communal kitchen, an experimental greenhouse garden and several spaces for political debate, mostly about the legacies of European colonialism. Documenta Fifteen is curated by Ruangrupa, another Indonesian collective, and they conceived it as a pyramid scheme: the participants, mostly from the global south, were encouraged to invite other collectives, who in turn passed the invitation on. No one knew exactly how many people ended up contributing to the show – perhaps as many as 1500. The whole arrangement was irreverent, non-hierarchical, a much needed corrective to the rigid museological style of previous ‘editions’, as Documenta refers to its exhibitions. It mocked the art world’s system of corporate sponsorship and commercial fairs.
Suharto’s dictatorship wouldn’t have lasted for three decades if it hadn’t had the backing – diplomatic, financial, tactical – of Western governments and their intelligence agencies. Recently declassified documents show that the CIA provided the Indonesian army with lists of targets, while the British Foreign Office stoked up anti-communist feeling by distributing fake ‘émigré’ newsletters and seeding stories in radio broadcasts. As meeting transcripts show, Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger personally sanctioned Suharto’s invasion of East Timor in 1975. More than a hundred thousand people were killed with the help of US arms. For many artist-activists in Indonesia, as elsewhere in the global south, the brutality exercised by authoritarian governments at home is bound up with their enablers abroad. Unlike the domestic perpetrators of violence, who have names and faces, these unknown others operate in the shadows – which makes it all the easier for them to grow crude and monstrous in the imagination.
As agitprop, People’s Justice isn’t complex. On the right are the simple citizens, villagers and workers: victims of the regime. On the left are the accused perpetrators and their international accomplices. Representatives of foreign intelligence services – the Australian ASIO, MI5, the CIA – are depicted as dogs, pigs, skeletons and rats. There is even a figure labelled ‘007’. An armed column marches over a pile of skulls, a mass grave. Among the perpetrators is a pig-faced soldier wearing a Star of David and a helmet with ‘Mossad’ written on it. In the background stands a man with sidelocks, a crooked nose, bloodshot eyes and fangs for teeth. He is dressed in a suit, chewing on a cigar and wearing a hat marked ‘SS’: an Orthodox Jew, represented as a rich banker, on trial for war crimes – in Germany, in 2022.
On their first attempt at an apology, on 24 June, the artists suggested that the pig-faced Mossad agent had a different meaning in the context in which it was painted. The pig is a traditional Javanese symbol of corruption and Mossad figured because Israeli intelligence played a role – a minor role – in supporting Suharto. They insisted that their target wasn’t any single ethnic or religious group but the array of Western countries that had lined up behind the regime. They pointed out that there were other pigs in the picture. But in Germany, where engravings of ‘the Jewish Sow’ still decorate cathedrals, despite campaigns and legal actions to get them removed, it was hard to argue that the image was not intended to single out Jews. There was, at least, no attempt to explain away the image of the Orthodox Jew with the SS hat. He is positioned behind an equally racist depiction of a Black GI, penis in hand, ejaculating. Not a subtle piece of art.
On 6 July, a representative from Ruangrupa, the curatorial collective, appeared at the Bundestag to issue a further apology. Ade Darmawan argued that antisemitism had been brought to Indonesia, which today has a population of 275 million with a tiny Jewish minority, by Dutch colonisers and German migrants. Colonial violence, he said, has often entailed pitting non-white people against one another. In the case of Indonesia, Dutch colonial officers encouraged the demonisation of Chinese minorities by applying ‘originally European antisemitic ideas and images to portray Chinese in the way Europeans have portrayed Jews’. Art historians have gone on to explain that once they arrived in Indonesia, these stereotypes worked their way into the wider cultural imaginary, mixing with local artforms – in particular, with Javanese shadow puppet theatre, or wayang, which already had its own cast of beak-nosed villains and dancing grotesques. An antisemitic trope was quickly assimilated into their company. Javanese shadow puppets, in turn, influenced the political art of the post-Suharto era, when cartoon monsters from children’s theatre were the perfect vehicle for commentary on three decades of oppression.
Hannah Arendt and Aimé Césaire used the metaphor of the boomerang to explain the relationship between antisemitism and colonialism. European fascism, Nazi totalitarianism and the Holocaust were, as they saw it, the homecoming of the racism and violence that European empires had unleashed across the colonial frontier. The boomerang that hit Documenta had another, secondary trajectory, however: having travelled across continents and generations, European antisemitism had returned home in the altered guise of an anti-colonial work of art. And it landed bang in the middle of Friedrichsplatz, which has its own antisemitic history to deal with. This was the ‘return of the return’, to use a psychoanalytic hyperbole. No one can blame Jews for being appalled at finding themselves at the meeting point of these two trajectories.
But when they appear (as they too often do) in anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist circles, antisemitic representations don’t only point to a deeply held prejudice, excluding one group from the promise of global solidarity. What such representations might imply is a failure of political imagination, an inability or unwillingness to grasp abstractions. They emerge when economic, social or political processes seem incomprehensible. The figure of the cigar-chewing Jew represents the intangible, alien forces that threaten to destroy traditional societies and communities.
The antisemitism row at Documenta was about more than just one banner, however. It began in January, five months before the exhibition opened. The dispute was not about the institution’s own legacy – its co-founder Werner Haftmann was a Nazi war criminal – or the ongoing violence against Germany’s Jewish community. Instead, it started with a blog post by a previously unknown and openly Islamophobic organisation calling itself Alliance against Antisemitism Kassel, which objected to the inclusion of some of the invited artists. The complaints were soon taken up by the local and national press, helping to create the impression that this year’s Documenta was wilfully antisemitic.
Among the early targets were two Palestinian participants associated with the Ramallah-based Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre. They were accused of being antisemites, apparently on the grounds that the centre’s namesake, a Palestinian poet and politician who died in 1953, was a Nazi sympathiser. To hold this history against later generations seemed a curious line of argument for modern Germans to take. But in any case, as the academic Jens Hanssen has shown, the idea that Sakakini was a sympathiser rests on a considerable oversimplification. In the period of anti-colonial struggle against the British Mandate, and growing Jewish and Arab nationalism, Sakakini did see an ally in Germany, though he also kept up friendly exchanges with Zionist and Jewish intellectuals. During the Nakba, Israeli forces confiscated his books and they ended up as ‘abandoned property’ at the Oriental Reading Room in Israel’s National Library, which refuses to return them to this day. Having lectured and exhibited at the Sakakini Centre, I know it to be a robust and inquisitive space for critical debate, particularly among a new generation of Palestinian scholars, artists and activists, so much so that the Palestinian Authority, which has not been spared its critiques, is threatening to close it down.
Accusations of antisemitism were also levelled at participants who had signed an open letter criticising the Bundestag’s BDS motion of 2019. The decision to deny funding to organisations that support the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement has led to Palestinians and their supporters being refused permission to speak at public events across Germany. Palestinian journalists have been fired from broadcasters including Deutsche Welle and WDR. Jewish critics are now experiencing something of what Palestinian activists have had to endure. A director of one of Germany’s leading arts institutes noted my public support of BDS when postponing an invitation to show work I was involved with (not on Palestine, but on the German colonial genocide in Namibia). In paranoid language that echoed old conspiratorial fantasies, he suggested that ‘powerful forces are out to get us … [they are] directed against our wellbeing and person, and could ultimately cost me my job … We must first arm ourselves against this.’ In early June, as the controversy around Documenta deepened, he quietly cancelled the exhibition.
Among the collectives invited to take part was a group called the Question of Funding, which draws its members from the Palestinian arts community and cultural NGOs. On 28 May, in the single most serious episode of this affair, the rooms where the group was due to exhibit were raided and defaced with cryptic death threats, including the number 187, which is sometimes used in the US to refer to murder. A month after the opening, the group cancelled its public programme and left Kassel.
Anti-Palestinian racism wasn’t confined to Documenta. Two weeks earlier, the Berlin police had prohibited events commemorating the 74th anniversary of the Nakba – including a vigil organised by a Jewish group – arguing that there was a high risk of antisemitic behaviour. On 17 June, the Goethe-Institut cancelled an invitation, already accepted, to Mohammed El-Kurd, a Palestinian writer and activist, whose home was occupied by an Israeli settler, citing recent comments he had made about Israel.
The artists and curators at Documenta have apologised and promised to learn from their mistakes. But their detractors in the German media and politics haven’t begun to acknowledge, let alone unlearn, their own racist prejudices. Instead they have used the controversy as an opportunity to tell Palestinians and critical Jewish Israelis, as well as artists from the global south, that they have no right to speak out. Like the antisemitism that exists in anti-imperialist circles, the state-sponsored and openly Islamophobic persecution of artists and intellectuals in Germany falsely separates the entangled histories of racism and antisemitism, placing them in opposition to each other.
Not everyone in Germany is aware of this discursive construction. In autumn 2019, on Yom Kippur, a neo-Nazi wearing a GoPro camera tried to break into the last remaining synagogue in Halle and stream videos of himself murdering Jews. He blamed the Jewish community for having conspired to arrange the immigration of Muslims, which he perceived to be an existential threat to German society. The worshippers, who saw him approaching on security camera footage, managed to bolt the door in time. After failing to break in, the man attacked and killed a passer-by, before running into a nearby kebab shop, known to be frequented by migrants, and killing one of the customers. In court he said that he didn’t ‘want to kill whites’.
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