The City of Kassel Is Buying the Controversial Monument to Refugees That Was the Heart of documenta

The clock is ticking on a deal to buy Olu Oguibe's prize-winning, pro-refugee work.

Nigerian-born US artist and writer Olu Oguibe poses in front of his obelisk during documenta 14. JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images

On Monday, the German city of Kassel voted in favor of purchasing a public monument to refugees by Nigerian-born American artist Olu Oguibe. The towering obelisk, titled Monument to Strangers and Refugees, had been commissioned for last year’s documenta 14, sparking controversy when an acquisition was proposed. The work’s strong message in a central location in the city struck a chord in a country deeply divided over its refugee policy.

The 52-foot sculpture presides over the large town square of Königsplatz and is inscribed in four languages with a Biblical quote from the Book of Matthew: “I was a stranger and you took me” in Turkish, Arabic, English, and German. It won the Arnold Bode Prize, which is awarded each documenta by the city.

Though the news of the sale would seem to represent a peaceable outcome, the city’s decision to buy the work isn’t without conditions, and a tight deadline is looming—one which will ultimately decide the fate of the public sculpture. The sale is contingent on the artist and the city reaching an agreement about whether the obelisk will stay in its current location or be moved to another site. The deadline to come to an agreement is June 30—which leaves under two weeks for discussions—or the work will be taken down.

Oguibe was clear that he felt strongly about keeping the work at its current site and has said that the sculpture was conceived in consideration of the square itself. “The obelisk is not a casual sculpture. It was inspired by its specific site. If not for Königsplatz the obelisk would not exist, and without Königsplatz the obelisk will not exist,” he wrote in a recent statement to the public. The artist has since stated that he would consider a compromise and move the work to the documenta Institute, which is still being planned.

Some have cited concern that the city’s purchase is simply a way to acquire the work legally and then remove it. At a city council meeting in May, the city’s deputy for culture alleged that the mayor’s plan was to purchase the obelisk and then, as rightful owners, deinstall it and put it in storage.

Olu Oguibe's Monument for Strangers and Refugees, featuring the Bible verse "I Was a Stranger and You Took Me In" in four languages. Image: Ben Davis.

Olu Oguibe’s Monument for Strangers and Refugees, featuring the Bible verse “I Was a Stranger and You Took Me In” in four languages. Photo Ben Davis.

There has also been a significant backlash from citizens and members within the government about the work since its unveiling last June. The city’s announcement that it was looking into acquiring the work as documenta closed last fall prompted further outcry.

In late January, a public fundraiser was launched by the city to purchase Oguibe’s sculpture, which was priced at €600,000 ($693,000). One day later a vandal painted the words “€600,000? Are you crazy?” onto the obelisk. By spring, only €126,000 ($146,000) was raised, but the artist ended up accepting the price.

According to a report in Monopol, the artist’s gallerist, Alexander Koch, said the decision was “basically good news,” but noted that both parties need to start talking quickly about its location.

The refugee crisis and populist resurgence in German politics have been no small players in the controversy surrounding the fate of Oguibe’s monument. In a statement made by the artist in May, Oguibe revealed that he had received a note from a senior official of the city’s ruling party, the SPD. The note stated that “if the obelisk is not removed from the Königsplatz, they would have problems with members of the right wing.”

Germany’s far-right party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), has been vocal about their opposition to the monument, going so far as to refer to it as “disfigured art,” a term that, for some, evoked harrowing memories of Nazi Germany’s persecution of art deemed “degenerate.” (Two AfD members now sit on the 13-member cultural committee that is in talks with the artist and his gallery about the work.)

At a panel discussion on the issue in April, a local educator and activist Ayşe Güleç responded to the controversial comment, saying that “as long as politicians say ‘distorted art,’ we need the obelisk.”

An assistant paints golden letters on Nigerian-born US artist and writer Olu Oguibe’s obelisk during the documenta 14. Photo credit should read JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images)

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