Documenta hit by new allegations of antisemitism

The fresh claims concern illustrations used in a presentation by the Archives of Women’s Struggles in Algeria

Fridericianum, Kassel, 2015, Photo: Nicolas Wefers

In an edition plagued by controversy, Documenta 15 faces new allegations of displaying antisemitic imagery in its exhibition – a little over a month after its public opening and only weeks since the scandal surrounding antisemitic tropes and stereotypes in a work by Indonesian collective Taring Padi (for which the curators ruangrupa have formally apologised).

A copy of a 1988 brochure about the Palestinian liberation movement, called Presence des Femmes by Burhan Karkoutly, shows drawings depicting Israeli soldiers as robots, with Stars of David on their helmets, as one pinches a child’s ear. In another image, a woman kicks an Israeli soldier in the groin – he has a hooked nose and another Star of David. A further work appears to display Jesus on the cross, throwing a stone with a free right hand.

Karkoutly’s illustrations – on view at the quinquennial’s main location in the Museum Fridericianum – were noted by a visitor three weeks ago. On site, the anonymous visitor – who spoke to Die Welt – contacted Documenta staff to report the works. They were collected immediately, and an investigation was launched. Five days later, however, they were laid out again.

The brochure was presented alongside other archival reproductions in a show by the Archives of Women’s Struggles in Algeria, which aimed to chronicle the country’s post-independence era. The collective is one of Documenta 15’s official participants.

In a comment seen by Artnet, scholars and representatives from the Archives of Women’s Struggles in Algeria issued the following statement: ‘This issue was in solidarity by the Algerian women with the Palestinian people, in denouncing the crimes committed by the Israeli State. We would like this document, like many other texts or artworks in the world, to be placed in its historical and political context. It is a document of the history of contemporary Algeria, produced within the framework of the struggles of Algerian women who are engaged in a struggle for equality against all forms of gender discrimination but also against all the oppression of peoples including those suffered by the Palestinians.’

Documenta’s shareholders – the city of Kassel and the state of Hesse – said on Thursday 28 July that they only learned of the brochure on the evening of Tuesday 26 July via social media. The shareholders urged the artistic team to remove the drawings until they can be ‘appropriately contextualized’, and expressed ‘how urgently external expertise is needed’.

The Bundestag has continued to speak out on the issue. Anikó Merten, the FDP’s cultural policy spokeswoman, demanded that ‘Documenta has to renew itself and create structures that put it on the right path again’. Despite the resignation of Documenta’s director Sabine Schormann, Merten insisted nothing has changed about the ‘catastrophe of control at the largest international art exhibition’. Helge Lindh, Merten’s counterpart in the majority SPD, called for a ‘comprehensive inspection and assessment by external German and international experts of the entire inventory of works of art for antisemitic motifs’. The FDP’s General Secretary Bijan Djir-Sarai called for the exhibition to be ‘paused immediately’.

Alexander Farenholtz, Schormann’s replacement, has previously stated he would not undertake a full-scale review of works for any other instances of antisemitism, emphasising curatorial freedom for ruangrupa. Earlier this week, artists and the lumbung community published a letter previously sent to Documenta, reinstating their aims to resist censorship attempts.

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