At Large  November 19, 2023  Rebecca Schiffman

Documenta Team Resigns Over Israel-Hamas Conflict

Via Wikimedia Commons

The Fridericianum, pictured above during documenta 13, is a museum in Kassel, Germany. It was built in 1779 and is one of Europe's oldest public museums. Since 1955, it has also been the central exhibition site of the prestigious exhibition, documenta.

Documenta, the prestigious exhibition of contemporary art that takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany, has had a difficult couple of weeks. Its entire selection committee, which is in charge of choosing the next artistic director, has stepped down for different reasons connected to the Israel-Hamas conflict, putting in jeopardy the next edition of the show, which is slated for 2027.

The issues at Documenta follow greater concerns over free speech in Germany after the cancellation of a number of events and exhibitions due to the artist or curator’s political viewpoints on the conflict. Just last week, an exhibition at the Museum Folkwang was canceled after the curator posted pro-Palestine sentiments on social media. 

Since the attackes of October 7, the German government has declared strong support for Israel’s current war measures in Gaza. “At this moment, Germany has only one place, and that is alongside Israel," said chancellor of Germany Olaf Scholz after the initial Hamas terror attack on October 7. "Germany’s history and the responsibility it had for the Holocaust requires us to maintain the security and existence of Israel.”

On November 10, Israeli artist Bracha Lichtenberg Ettinger was the first member of the six-person selection committee to quit, citing difficulties in contributing after the initial Hamas attack. Ettinger was followed by Indian poet Ranjit Hoskote, who resigned after being publicly denounced by Documenta for signing a 2019 letter condemning an event at the University of Mumbai that year that was planned by the Israeli Consulate General, which explored the connection between Zionism and Hindu nationalism.

The letter was issued by the Indian division of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, which lobbies for Palestinian rights and freedom. According to Documenta, they had asked all committee members to confirm they were unaffiliated with BDS. 

Image by Erik via Pixabay

Argentinian artist Marta Minujín took the Parthenon as a model of political and aesthetic democracy. Her 1983 work, Parthenon of Books, which was staged at Documenta in 2017, offered a replica of the Greek temple but comprising books that were banned during Argentina’s military dictatorship of 1976-1983 against left-wing political opponents.

Following the revelation of the letter, which Documenta deemed to be “clearly anti-Semitic”, Hoskote willingly resigned on November 12. In his resignation letter, Hoskote denounced any accusations of being anti-Semitic, saying “I have been written about with harshness and condescension” and that he feels he has “been subjected to the proceedings of a kangaroo court.” 

On November 16, the remaining four members of the committee—Gong Yan, Simon Njami, Kathrin Rhomberg, and María Inés Rodríguez—announced that they, too would resign.  In a letter co-signed by the group, they said, “The dynamics of the last few days, with their unchallenged media and public discrediting of our colleague Ranjit Hoskote, which forced him to resign from the Finding Committee, make us very doubtful if this prerequisite for any coming edition of documenta is currently given in Germany.” 

“Art requires a critical and multi-perspective examination of its diverse forms and contents to be able to resonate and develop its transformative capacity," the letter continues. "Categorically, one sided reductions and over-simplifications of complex contexts threaten to nip any such examination in the bud.”

While the group understands Germany’s history and its need for distinct social and political responsibilities, they also stated that this awareness of “special responsibilities can run the risk of being misused for opinion politics in order to suppress undesirable approaches and their broad and open discussion right from the start.”

In response to the resignations, Documenta said in a release that they “respect this decision" and thanked "all those involved for their dedication.” Now, Documenta will work to restructure the selection process before it can begin once again.

The resignations are the latest in a series of debates around Israel and Gaza that have roiled the art world in recent weeks. Artforum’s editor in chief David Velasco was fired in late October for publishing a letter in support of Palestinian liberation, and the artist Ai Weiwei’s show at Lisson Gallery in London was canceled, as reported by The Art Newspaper, over a message on X in which he stated his views about the Israel-Hamas conflict. 

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