The decision was made in January, before the start of documenta 15: Reza Afisina and Iswanto Hartono, members of the Indonesian artist collective ruangrupa, were selected as visiting professors at the University of Fine Arts Hamburg (HFBK) for the academic year beginning in October 2022.
Ruangrupa organized this year’s documenta art exhibition. Even before it opened, they were criticized by some for their choice of organizations and artists seen as supporting the cultural boycott of Israel or as being anti-Semitic.
At the time, no one could have predicted the waves that some of the works on display at the art exhibition would make. The first scandal came just days after the show opened, with the anti-Semitic imagery on Indonesian collective Taring Padi’s “People’s Justice” banner. A pamphlet on display has also been criticized as anti-Semitic.
‘Clear all open questions’
The Tory group, which issued a half-hearted apology, has been criticized for its handling of the accusations. Documenta chief executive Sabine Schormann resigned from her post in July. She, too, had done little to clarify the allegations, instead citing artistic freedom.
Demonstrations against visiting professors
As a result, many people are upset that two ruangrupa members have guest teachers in Germany.
Hamburg’s Jewish community called it a “disgrace” for the city. Hamburg Science Senator Katharina Fegebank said visiting professors had a responsibility to clarify the allegations. German Education Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger also called on the university to clarify “all open questions”.
“These two people have proven that they are not able or willing to critically address anti-Semitism,” said Volker Beck, president of the German-Israeli Society. He didn’t want to blame curators for having anti-Semitic images in an exhibit, “but what matters is how you treat them, how you categorize them or whether you unpublish them,” Beck told DW.
While the documenta was still ongoing, ruangrupa decided to “play down the accusations or just do nothing”, he said, saying it was not to be too sensitive to the issue by Germany. “The depiction of figures with SS runes, side curls and hooked noses in particular is about the reception and reproduction of European anti-Semitism. There is no excuse for this in the Asian region either,” said said Beck. He said ruangrupa members are rewarded with a professorship “for what they failed to do”.
Anti-Semitic images on the Indonesian banner which was removed at the start of the documenta
Naming them visiting professors is also problematic in light of a document titled “Letter Against Apartheid” signed by several ruangrupa members in 2021, Beck said. The signatories accused the State of Israel of leading an apartheid regime against the Palestinians and urged governments to end cultural cooperation in addition to trade and economic relations. “How can an art school give a professorship to people who advocate the boycott of art and thus oppose artistic and academic freedom?” Beck said, adding that the decision called into question the university’s liberal underpinnings.
Hamburg University of Fine Arts “opens space for discussion”
The HFBK underlined the opportunity for a constructive dialogue. “The attitude at the art academy is critical and thoughtful on topics like racism and anti-Semitism, as well as questions of identity politics,” HFBK president Martin Köttering told DW. He said he had spoken to the state government about the chairs and there was “no talk of abstaining from the appointment”.
The university is a place of debate, he said, adding that of course there must be a discussion about anti-Semitism. He said that what is important is not to talk about ruangrupa members, but with them, and to keep the focus on artistic issues. “It offers the opportunity to address topics that have not been discussed to the end,” said Köttering.
Meron Mendel sees the pulpits as an opportunity to create more space for discussion
Meron Mendel, director of the Anne Frank Education Center and who resigned as an adviser to documenta in July, believes there is a need to continue the debate and sees the Conservatives’ professorship as an opportunity to do so. to arrive at.
Anti-Semitism is prevalent in all walks of life, even in left-leaning progressive circles, he told DW. “Nevertheless, today a closed anti-Semitic view of the world and an overt hatred of Jews as part of an overarching ideology is mostly evident on the right-wing fringe,” he said, adding that anyone who reproduces anti-Semitic images do not represent anti-Semitic ideology.
“Benefit for society”
Discussing whether the artist collective should be labeled anti-Semitic isn’t constructive, Mendel said, but said they “definitely have blind spots, and you have to criticize that their willingness to to engage was very limited”. Ruangrupa has become too entrenched in the role of victim, he said, adding that he can understand why curators would have wanted to protect the exhibit.
“I see the pulpits as an opportunity to discuss topics in a different way and with a bit of distance,” Mendel said. Now that the art exhibition is over, curators no longer run the risk of having to remove works, he said. “If an open dialogue is possible, it can benefit not only the university, but society as a whole.”
This article was originally written in German.