The Debate Over a Pro-Refugee Obelisk in Kassel Intensifies as Right-Wing Groups Ramp Up Opposition

The city still can't decide what to do with the artwork.

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.

The German town of Kassel, which hosts the international quinquennial documenta, still can’t figure out what do with Olu Oguibe’s award-winning contribution to the fair’s 14th edition. The Nigerian artist’s 54-foot obelisk Monument to Strangers and Refugees has stood in a town square since the local municipality launched a crowdfunding campaign to acquire the €600,000 ($693,000) work last January.

The artwork, which won the fair’s prestigious Arnold Bode Prize, has been heavily politicized since it was installed in the square. Local politicians from Germany’s right-wing anti-immigration AfD party (Alternative für Deutschland) have reportedly lobbied to have the obelisk removed, objecting to its gold inscription, which is taken from the Bible’s Matthew 25:35. The passage reads “I was a stranger and you took me in,” and is emblazoned on each side of the monument in German, English, Arabic, and Turkish.

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)

If Oguibe’s work serves as a symbol of acceptance, some have suggested that it is also an endorsement of chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door immigration policy, which has led to an influx of over one million refugees and asylum seekers at the height of the European refugee crisis.

According to a recent report in Hyperallergic, in a late September meeting, city councilors voted to remove the artwork indefinitely, rejecting Oguibe’s proposal to relocate it to a less central location near the city’s university.  The report added that the artist and KOW, his gallery, were expecting the work to be returned.

However, in an email to artnet News, Oguibe disputed the report. “There is no decision from Kassel to return or remove the work, and my gallerist and I are not preparing to receive the work,” he wrote. Instead, the artist continued, “the speaker of the Kassel city council has said they’re open for further negotiations, so negotiations with Kassel will continue.” 

Since 1977, the city has acquired 16 sculptures or installations for permanent display in the city. In January, Oguibe told the Art Newspaper that his work “was designed specifically for Kassel and the public square on which it stands.” 

When the three-month crowdfunding campaign was launched the same month, Kassel’s culture minister Susanne Völker said that if the target amount was not reached, the city would open negotiations with the artist to buy the sculpture at the amount attained. And if the artist rejected the offer, donors would get their money back. Nearly 10 months later, the campaign has raised around €77,000 ($89,000). Negotiations are still ongoing, and it is unclear if and when the donors will be reimbursed.

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