‘This Was Our Error’: Documenta Curators Have Apologized for Including a Mural With Antisemitic Imagery in This Year’s Show

The director of the Anne Frank educational center will chair a panel on antisemitism and racism in Kassel next week.

A mural with the new documenta fifteen logo can be seen on the so-called "ruruHaus" by the Indonesian curatorial collective Ruangrupa on a former sports shop in downtown Kassel. Photo: Swen Pförtner/picture alliance via Getty Images.

The members of Ruangrupa, the artistic team behind Documenta 15, have issued a formal apology over the inclusion of a controversial artwork with antisemitic imagery. The statement was followed by a separate comment by Sabine Schormann, head of Documenta’s parent company, who promised to review the rest of the exhibition for any further antisemitic imagery.

The pair of statements come in the wake of the removal of a contentious mural created by Indonesian collective Taring Padi, called People’s Justice (2002). The artwork had been installed late on Friday last week, ahead of the official opening of Documenta on Saturday, June 18 (on view until September 25).

It was covered up by Tuesday morning as soon as viewers narrowed in on two caricatures in the large piece. One appears to show an Orthodox Jewish man with fangs and blood-red eyes wearing a black hat with the Nazi “SS” insignia, the acronym for the Nazi Schutzstaffel. Another depicts a pig dressed as a Mossad soldier.

“The truth of the matter is that we collectively failed to spot the figure in the work, which is a character that evokes classical stereotypes of antisemitism,” said Ruangrupa in the statement published yesterday, June 23. “We acknowledge that this was our error.”

Detail of the mural People’s Justice by the Indonesian artist group Taring Padi. In the center of the artwork, one can see a figure that appears to be an Orthodox Jew with an “SS” on his hat, as well as a pig wearing a helmet with “Mossad” written on it. (Photo by Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images)

In her statement, Schormann said that the entire 30,000 square meters of display and 32 exhibition locations will be examined for further problematic works. Some of the venues may be closed during these inspections, which will be led by Meron Mendel, director of the Anne Frank educational center in Frankfurt. Mendel will also chair a panel on antisemitism and racism that is set to convene on June 29.

“Clearly antisemitic depictions will be uninstalled, and in the case of controversial positions, an appropriate debate will be conducted,” said Schormann. “We also reserve the right to un-invite individual artists.”

Both statements reiterated their hopes that the incident will not overshadow the 1,500 other artists and collectives presenting work at Documenta 15, which takes place over 100 days in the German city of Kassel.

“We want to use this moment to say that we hope that all of our works have not been in vain, just like the work of our supporters and collaborators is not in vain,” added Ruangrupa. “We take this opportunity to educate ourselves further about the atrocious history and present of antisemitism and are shocked that this figure made it into the work in question,” they said.

The collective added that they hope this will lead to more constructive criticism. They also emphasized that “many of the attacks against us were not done in good faith.” In the lead-up to the show, the group faced vehement questioning around some participants ties to pro-Palestinian movements.

The Question of Funding at Documenta

Installation by the group The Question of Funding at WH22. The graffiti “187,” which may be a reference to a U.S. penal code, was interpreted by some to be a threat to the Palestinian collective showing there. It was not removed for the exhibition. Photo by Ben Davis.

They said that banner, which was collectively made by Taring Padi in 2002 and features scores of satirical characters, refers to Indonesia’s “unresolved dark history since 1965 during the Orde Baru (New Order) era.” This is a time in which the Suharto regime purged at least half a million left-wing and communist party members, according to one report. During the time of political upheaval, the Indonesian regime reportedly had dealings with both the CIA and Mossad, Israel’s secret service.

For its part, Documenta blamed difficulty in planning the exhibition online due to the coronavirus and shipping delays that made it near impossible to inspect in detail every work arriving.

Some in the German press have asked how an antisemitic work could have made it into the quinquennial in the first place, and have called into question Documenta’s funding and state support. Others have called on general director, Sabine Schormann and German culture minister Claudia Roth to resign.

The show has been off to a bumpy start. In April, Ruangrupa decided to cancel talks about racism and antisemitism in Germany after it was called biased. In May, vandals attacked an arts venue in Kassel that was hosting a Palestinian group show with right-wing graffiti.

Schormann added that the role of the exhibition is to create a dialogue. “It is not appropriate to place the entire exhibition with its thousands of works and projects under general suspicion,” she said in her statement. “Documenta fifteen provides food for thought and sets impulses for solidarity and community, which is perceived positively by the public. Despite all the criticism, this should continue to be acknowledged accordingly.”

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