Director of Documenta art exhibition resigns over antisemitism controversy

Written by Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

The head of one of the world’s most prestigious art exhibitions has resigned after this year’s show became embroiled in a scandal over antisemitic imagery.

Sabine Schormann, managing director of Documenta, which takes place every five years in Kessel, Germany, stepped down on Saturday. A statement from the exhibition’s supervisory board expressed “its deep consternation that clearly antisemitic motifs were to be seen on the opening weekend of documenta fifteen.” An interim director will be appointed, according to the board.

The 15th edition of Documenta is its largest show to date, curated by the Indonesian collective Ruangrupa. But its long-awaited opening in mid-June was quickly overshadowed by one of the pieces on display: a controversial 8- by 12-foot banner made in 2002 by the Indonesian activist art collective Taring Padi.

Called “People’s Justice,” the work features caricatures of Jewish military figures, including one that wears the SS insignia on a black hat and is depicted with fangs and the sidecurls worn by Jewish Orthodox men. Another figure, a soldier resembling a pig, has “Mossad” scrawled on his helmet.

The large-scale artwork

The large-scale artwork “People’s Justice” by the Indonesian artist collective Taring Padi became the center of a massive controversy for its antisemitic motifs. Credit: Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

According to a statement From the artists, the mural was created as a response to the “violence, exploitation and censorship” of life under the rule of Indonesia’s former president and army officer Suharto and was meant to “expose the complex power relationships that are at play behind these injustices.” ,” including the democratic foreign governments that they say “openly or secretly” supported military rule in the country.
Germany’s cultural minister Claudia Roth condemned the inclusion of the banner, calling the work antisemitic on June 20, two days after Documenta opened. “People’s Justice” was covered up, then ultimately removed only a few days into the show, which runs until late September.

Following the removal of the artwork, Taring Padi apologized to the Jewish community, the German public and Documenta attendees.

“The imagery that we use is never intended as hatred directed at a particular ethnic or religious group, but as a critique of militarism and state violence,” the group said. ‘We depicted the involvement of the government of the state of Israel in the wrong way—and we apologize.’

The artwork was temporarily covered in black cloth before it was removed.

The artwork was temporarily covered in black cloth before it was removed. Credit: Uwe Zucchi/picture alliance/Getty Images

Remko Leemhuis, the director of the American Jewish Committee Berlin Lawrence, said in an email that the inclusion of “People’s Justice” illustrated that there is a “massive problem” with antisemitism in German art and culture as well as on the international stage.

“It is outrageous that the supervisory board in its statement is not expressing one word of regret or issuing an apology to the Central Council of Jews in Germany or the Jewish community in Germany as a whole about the damage this has caused,” he said.

“People’s Justice” has not been an isolated controversy. The 2022 edition of Documenta has been criticized for months for the antisemitic views of some of its participating artists, which Leemhuis said still has not been addressed by the board.

Moving forward, Documenta’s supervisory board recommended that the exhibition “enter a process of consultation” with academic experts who can assess the issues around the current show and “advise in case further antisemitic imagery should come up.”


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