The controversies that have engulfed documenta fifteen began in January 2022, but the seeds of the challenges, and counter challenges that have plagued this ‘museum if 100 days’ can perhaps be traced to historical events and constructions of power and knowledge that go back decades. This edition of the quinquennial, viewed as the largest and most influential arts show in the world, began with hope and excitement in 2019, with the ground-breaking decision to appoint a Southeast Asian collective, Indonesia’s runanrupa, as the artistic directors. Yet, six months before the show was to open, in June 2022, the management, artistic directors and selected invited artists were subjected to an intense public debate centered on accusations of anti-Semitism. Things only got worse from there. While documenta fifteen has ended, it is clear that the ramifications from the exhibition will be felt, in Germany, in Southeast Asia and the rest of the world for some time to come.
In an effort to document the way that these controversies unfolded, grew, multiplied and mutated, we have created a timeline of key events, drawn from publicly available sources in English, Bahasa Indonesia and German. The timeline is as accurate as we were able to make is, with all entries supported links to sources. We welcome feedback, corrections and new additions to the timeline.
Jakarta-based collective ruangrupa¹ is appointed artistic director of documenta fifteen by an International Finding Committee². ruangrupa is the first collective, and the first from Asia, appointed to the position in documenta’s 67-year history. Aside from Nigerian-born Okwui Enwezor, the artistic director of documenta 11, all previous artistic directors have been from the West. ruangrupa’s curatorial approach is a “community-oriented model of resource usage” loosely based on the concept of lumbung which is an Indonesian word for a communal rice-barn.
Image credit: ruangrupa.
Germany’s Bundestag (parliament), is the first in Europe to pass a parliamentary resolution designating the Palestenian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement as anti-Semitic. BDS, inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement, seeks to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and is seen by its critics as a threat to the existence of Israel.
A negative consequence of the resolution, according to one report, is the silencing of artists and academics who are critical of Zionism, in Germany.
A host of German cultural and academic institutions, under the Initiative GG 5.3. Weltoffenheit banner, protest the resolution, saying that while they did not support the BDS boycott of Israel, they considered the logic of the anti-BDS resolution taken by the Bundestag “to be dangerous”. The statement notes that “By invoking this resolution, accusations of antisemitism are being misused to push aside important voices and to distort critical positions.
Over 1000 artists, including those from Germany and Israel, sign a letter, “Nothing can be changed until it is faced”, in support of Initiative GG 5.3 Weltofenheit, saying that “Regardless of whether we support BDS or not, as signatories of this letter we share an insistent belief in the right to exercise non-violent pressure on governments that violate human rights.”
Lumbung Konteks, a series of seven online conversations, is launched as part of documenta fifteen’s public program. Each talk features two of documenta fifteen’s lumbung members³ to “introduce, expand and reflect on each other’s practice and their wider ecosystem”. The series kicks off with Jatiwangi Art Factory from Indonesia, and Palestinian collective The Question of Funding.
An anonymous blog published in the name of The Alliance Against Anti-Semitism Kassel (AAASM) alleges that several lumbung artists support Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS). The blog, which carries the tagline, “There is no Anti-Zionism without Anti-Semitism”, links A Question of Funding to the Ramallah-based Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre (KSCC) as proof of its anti-Semitism.
It also attacks members of the International Finding Committee, including Amar Kanwar and Charles Esche, saying some members of committee are “obviously unavoidable representatives of the “Israel criticism” faction in the cultural sector”.⁴
Although the allegations are unfounded, they spread quickly via social media, and in the German and international media. There follows an intense period of attacks against documenta fifteen with commentary from politicians, cultural leaders, Jewish community organisations, academicians and social media users. Among the allegation is the erroneous claim that no Israeli or Jewish artists were invited to documenta fifteen. The discourse is polarising, shaped by the different factions within Germany’s own internal political and cultural groups. There are some voices defending ruangrupa against the accusations, but overall, there is vociferous condemnation, including demands that certain artists be removed from the exhibition.
documenta rejects these claims, asserting that “[n]ot only the principles of freedom of expression but also a resolute rejection of antisemitism, racism, extremism, Islamophobia, and any form of violent fundamentalism are the underpinnings of our work. The rights of all people to a self-determined life in peace, dignity, and security is elementary to the team of documenta fifteen.”
In an attempt at dialogue to address the controversy, documenta announces a series of online discussion forums, “We need to talk!”, on the “fundamental right of artistic freedom in the face of increasing racism, Islamophobia and antisemitism”, scheduled in May.
ruangrupa publishes a letter on e-flux, “Anti-Semitism Accusations Against documenta: A Scandal about a Rumor”. It expressed regret at the cancellation of “We need to talk”, saying that the current climate had rendered a “free and productive discussion impossible”. Addressing the accusations it has faced since January, the letter reiterates that “no anti-Semitic statements of any kind have been made in the context of documenta fifteen…It was also never planned to hold events featuring the Palestinian-led BDS (Boycott Divestment Sanctions) movement at documenta fifteen.”
27 – 28 May
Werner-Hilpert-Strasse 22 (WH22), The Question of Funding and Hamja Ahsan’s exhibition space, is broken into and vandalized with graffiti during the night, with among another things, the number “187”, a reference to California’s penal code, appropriated as a colloquial for murder. documenta’s administrators file a criminal complaint with the local authorities.
Image credit: documenta.
Journalist Hanno Hauenstein posts images of a projection on the exterior walls of ruruHaus, in the Gothic fonts favoured by the Nazis, denouncing ruangrupa as Nazis. Hauenstein calls out the act as motivated by “anti-Palestinian resentment and outright lies”.
Following incidents where “queer, trans, BIPoC people” at their event exprienced “racism, sexism, transphobia and breaking of consent at different instances”, Party Office (India) announces a door policy where “no white cis men will be allowed in our space.”
15 – 17 June
Media preview period.
documenta fifteen officially opens. Works by over 1,500 artists across 32 exhibition venues are featured. Controversy quickly grows over a work by Taring Padi, People’s Justice (2002)⁵. People’s Justice is a 8 x 12 meter banner made collectively by members of Taring Padi. The work refers to the history of and struggles in Indonesia Suharto’s New Order regime (1965 -1998). Two figures are read as anti-Semitic. One appears to be a Mossad agent, with a pig’s head and a Star of David kerchief. The other is an offensive caricature of a Jewish man with “SS” for the Nazi Schutzstaffel on his hat.
Image credit: Details from People’s Justice by Taring Padi, 2022.
People’s Justice is covered with a black cloth by the artists and the organisers.
People’s Justice is ‘deinstalled’, upon the request of documenta’s Supervisory Board, in conversation with its CEO, ruangrupa and Taring Padi. An apology is issued, for the “disappointment, shame, frustration, betrayal, and shock this stereotype has caused the viewers and the whole team…”.
The Finding Committee announce their support of the decision by the artists and organisers to remove People’s Justice, noting that the “caricatures…cannot be read as other than antisemitic.” WH22, is shut for two hours without the knowledge of the artists exhibiting there, nor ruangrupa. Hübner Areal, where Subversive Film’s artworks are exhibited, is closed for the entire day.
Taring Padi issues a statement about People’s Justice, saying, “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…we apologize. Anti-semitism does not have a place in our hearts and minds.”
A panel discussion on “Antisemitism in the Arts”, orgnised by Bildungsstätte Anne Frank and documenta gGmbH is held. There are no artists or members from the artistic team from documenta fifteen on the panel, which one report described as “heated and awkward”.
Ade Darmawan of ruangrupa presents a statement before the Cultural Committee of the German Bundestag, Germany’s parliament. He notes that the caricatures in People’s Justice is rooted in anti-semitism introduced by colonial powers into Indonesia “then transformed and appropriated within our own cultural context in an unacceptable way.” He also raises the fact that even before the opening, the group had been falsely accused of anti-semitism and had faced “a barrage of unfounded accusations and attacks, which undoubtedly created a climate where instead of the values lumbung stands for—mutual learning based on respect—the impulse is to interrogate, to censor, to expel.”
Prominent German artist Hito Steyerl withdraws her work from documenta. Steyerl cites the curators’ “repeated refusal to facilitate a sustained and structurally anchored inclusive debate around the exhibition, as well as the virtual refusal to accept mediation” as one of the reasons for her decision.
On the same day, Prof Meron Mendel, head of the Anne Frank Educational Institute steps down from his consulting role on documenta fifteen, reportedly because “neither a full-scale investigation into anti-Semitism in this year’s edition nor a more extended dialogue with ruangrupa had happened.” In a later interview published on 19 Sept, Prof Mendel opined that because open dialogue had not taken place between January and June, by the opening of documenta fifteen, “everyone had already retreated to their maximum position, on the one hand the demand was ‘everything must go’. On the other hand, any criticism was immediately devalued and critics were portrayed as racists…”⁶
Sections of archival material referring to Palestine are removed from the work of the Archives des luttes des femmes en Algérie (Archives of Women’s Struggles in Algeria) collective without the collective’s consent. The archival display of a 1988 issue of the feminist Algerian women’s journal Présence de femmes that deals with Palestine is accused of being anti-Semitism, depicting “Israeli soldiers as dehumanized robots with bared teeth” and in another, an “Israeli soldier with an oversized hooked nose.” The work is removed from the exhibition but returned shortly after, with documenta fifteen curators quoted as saying “After investigating the matter we found the images took a clear stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but depicted no images of ‘Jews as such’.” Archives des Luttes des Femmes en Algérie also release a statement.
Image credit: Archives des luttes des femmes en Algérie.
Party Office cancels their public programm, citing safety concerns. In an instagram post, member Joey Cannizzaro says “If you are transgender, a person of color, or honestly anyone, please do not come to Kassel Germany or to Documenta 15,”.
Dr Sabine Schormann resigns as director general of documenta. Dr Schormann had initially defended Schormann People’s Justice, “saying the exhibition’s artistic directors were free to curate the show as they wished”. The article quotes a statement from the organizers that “The shareholders and supervisory board [of documenta] mutually agreed to terminate Sabine Schormann’s contract at short notice…”.
Alexander Farenholtz, managing director of Documenta 9 in 1992, replaces Dr Sabine Schormann. He reiterates that there will be no formal review of remaining works in documenta fifteen.
A letter titled “Censorship Must Be Refused” is sent privately to the members of the documenta supervisory board. It is signed by ruangrupa, members of documenta’s artistic team, and over 50 artists and collectives.
Alleging that the private letter had been released to the media and misquoted, “Censorship Must be Refused” is then made public on e-flux. Among the allegations in the letter is a list of sustained offline and online attacks, faced by the lumbung community and artists at documenta fifteen, as well as claims of calls for censorship. The statement reads, “While we recognise and regret the pain caused by the sequence of events in relation to Taring Padi’s work People’s Justice, we believe that this should not lead to a general atmosphere of probing and censorship.
documenta shareholders introduce the scientific advisory panel, which will review the “processes, structures and receptions around the documenta fifteen” and present results to documenta’s supervisory board and shareholders.
documenta fifteen reaches its mid-way point, reporting over 410,000 visitors.
A Jewish youth group, Junges Forum DIG alleges that another of Taring Padi’s works, All Mining Is Dangerous (2010) contains anti-Semitic imagery of a man in a yarmulke that has been obscured by black tape. The group calls for Taring Padi to be removed from documenta fifteen. Taring Padi release a statement saying the image is of an Indonesian in a kopiah, a traditional muslim cap.
Detail of TARING PADI’s All Mining Is Dangerous, 2010 with the black tape. Image credit: documenta.
British-Bangladeshi artist Hamja Ahsan calls German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, a facist pig in a social media post. The management of documenta and ruangrupa say his post is ‘unacceptable’ and he is banned from participating in document fifteen’s public programs although his works remain in the exhibition.
The scientific advisory panel release a statement which includes a recommendation to stop the screening of Tokyo Reels Film Festival, for containing “pro-Palestinian propaganda films from the 1960s-1980s by the collective Subversive Film” and to further examine the Mohammed Al Hawajri’s series Guernica Gaza and works from Archives des luttes des femmes en Algérie. In response, a petition-statement⁷ titled “We are angry, we are sad, we are tired, we are united” is published on e-flux. The statement expresses a categorical rejection of the scientific committee’s report, allegeding instead racism and censorship. The statement is signed by over 100 artists, members of documenta’s artistic team, and representatives of collectives.
The Finding Committee for the Artistic Direction of documenta fifteen release a statement in support of ruangrupa, lumbung members, and contributing artists. Saying that the pressure from the media and politicians on the team “have become unbearable”. The eight signatories of the committee say they “reject both the poison of anti-semitism and its current instrumentalization, which is being done to deflect criticism of the 21st century Israeli state and its occupation of Palestinian territory.”
documenta fifteen officially ends its 100 days.
¹Ruangrupa’s core members are Ajeng Nurul Aini, Daniella Fitria, Praptono Indra Ameng, Iswanto Hartono, Julia Sarisetiati, Mirwan Andan, Narpati Awangga, Reza Afisina and Farid Rakun andAde Darmawan.
²The eight members Ute Meta Bauer, founding director, NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore; Charles Esche, director of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands; Amar Kanwar, artist and filmmaker, New Delhi, India; Frances Morris, director of Tate Modern in London, Great Britain; Gabi Ngcobo, curator of the 10th Berlin Biennale 2018 in Germany (South Africa); Elvira Dyangani Ose, director of The Showroom London, England; Philippe Pirotte, director of the Staatliche Hochschule für Bildende Künste – Städelschule Frankfurt/M., Germany (Belgium); Jochen Volz, director of Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, Brazil.
³The fifteen lumbung members include: Britto Arts Trust, FAFSWAG, Fondation Festival Sur Le Niger, Gudskul, INLAND, INSTAR (Instituto de Artivismo Hannah Arendt), Jatiwangi art Factory, Más Arte Más Acción, OFF-Biennale Budapest, Project Art Works, The Question of Funding, Trampoline House, Wajukuu Art Project, and ZK/U – Center for Arts and Urbanistics.
⁴In the German original: "In der Findungskommission, resp. im Documentabeirat, sitzen mit Amar Kanwar und Charles Esche die im Kulturbetrieb offensichtlich unvermeidlichen Vertreter der Fraktion der „Israelkritik“ mit am Tisch."
⁵As the work was undergoing restoration, it was not visible during the media preview, and was only viewed at the opening.
⁶ In the German original: “...es hatten sich schon alle zurückgezogen auf ihre Maximalposition, einerseits war die Forderung, 'alles muss weg'. Von der anderen Seite wurde jede Kritik sofort abgewertet und Kritiker als Rassisten dargestellt…”
⁷The petition is addressed to Mayor of Kassel, Christian Geselle, Hessian Arts Minister Angela Dorn, Head of the Cultural Department of the City of Kassel Susanne Völker, Minister of State for Culture, Claudia Roth, the Supervisory Board and the Shareholders of documenta.