Head of top German art fair resigns in anti-Semitism row

Sabine Schormann leaves her post at Documenta after an exhibit featuring anti-Semitic elements prompted an outcry.

Director General Sabine Schormann speaks at the opening of Documenta 15
Sabine Schormann left her post as chief executive by mutual agreement, the art fair's executive board said [File: Martin Meissner/AP Photo]

The head of a major art show in Germany has resigned after an exhibit featuring anti-Semitic elements prompted an outcry at the event’s opening last month.

Sabine Schormann, the director general of Documenta, one of the world’s biggest art fairs, left her post as chief executive by mutual agreement, the art fair’s executive board said on Saturday.

It also expressed regret about what it described as “unambiguously anti-Semitic motifs” visible in one of the works shown at the opening weekend.

“The presentation of the banner ‘People’s Justice’ by the artists collective Taring Padi with its anti-Semitic imagery was a clear transgression and thereby caused significant harm to the Documenta,” the board said.

The banner featured a soldier with the face of a pig, wearing a neckerchief with a Star of David and a helmet inscribed with the word “Mossad,” the name of Israel’s intelligence agency. It was taken down within days after widespread criticism from Jewish groups and German and Israeli officials.

The Taring Padi collective, based in Indonesia, has already apologised for the incident. It said the work — which it said was first exhibited at the South Australia Art Festival in Adelaide 20 years ago — was “in no way related” to anti-Semitism, but instead referred to the post-1965 dictatorship in Indonesia.

“We are sorry that details of this banner are misunderstood other than their original purpose. We apologise for the injuries caused in this context,” it said last month.

It acknowledged that the incident followed months of debate about alleged anti-Semitism, which it and the show’s organisers had strongly rejected.

Germany’s president raised the issue of anti-Semitism during his speech at the show’s opening, saying there were “limits” to what artists can do when they address political issues in a country that is still atoning for the Holocaust.

This year’s Documenta is being curated by Indonesian art collective Ruangrupa, which has broken with tradition by using a collaborative format and inviting a wider range of participants from the Global South than previous editions of the exhibition.

But the debate surrounding the event has raised questions about whether Germany’s approach to combating anti-Semitism discriminates against Palestinians and supporters of Palestinian rights, and limits artistic freedom.

The contemporary art event had been clouded in controversy for months over its inclusion of The Question of Funding collective, a Palestinian artists’ group critical of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.

In June, several weeks before Documenta opened, the collective’s exhibition space was vandalised as intruders let off a fire extinguisher and spray painted what appeare to be death threats on the walls.

The collective supports BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions), a movement to boycott Israel until it withdraws from the Palestinian and Arab territory it occupies.

BDS, which draws support from around the world, was branded anti-Semitic by the German parliament in 2019 and barred from receiving federal funds. Approximately half of Documenta’s $42m budget comes from public funds.

In the years since, supporters of BDS have been stripped of awards, disinvited from events, and publicly denounced as antisemites.

Germany is home to Europe’s largest population of Palestinians, but many find the political climate is becoming increasingly hostile towards them.

A pro-Palestinian protestor holds a placard outside the Museum Fridericianum [File: Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters]
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies