Artist: Taring Padi
Date of Action: 2022-2023
Location: Kassel, Germany
Subject: Political/Economic/Social Opinion
Confronting Bodies: Documenta management, scientific advisory panel
Description of Artwork: “People’s Justice” is an agitprop tableau collaboratively designed and produced by the artists’ collective, Taring Padi in 2002. The large (8 by 12-meter / 26 by 39-foot), colorful work was created to commemorate victims of Indonesia’s dictatorship under General Suharto, which lasted from 1967 through 1998. It contains layers of chaotic scenes depicting multiple figures in tension and in conflict: laborers and business people, victims of violence and starvation, armed government agents/soldiers, humanoid-animals, and symbols of death. Many of the figures are depicted in exaggerated, satirical styles.One of the caricatures depicted seems to be a member of the Mossad, Israel’s secret service, depicted as a pig. Another seemingly Jewish figure appears with fangs, blood-red eyes, a large nose, pointy teeth, side-locks, and a cap emblazoned with “SS,” the acronym for the Nazi Schutzstaffel.
The Incident: Taring Padi was invited by the collective ruangrupa to participate in Documenta 15, a biennial exhibition of contemporary art hosted by Museum Fridericianum in Kassel, Germany, which takes place every five years. Ruangrupa, an Indonesian arts collective, curated Documenta 15, inviting 67 other core participants mainly from the Global South.Taring Padi’s image, with its illustrations of various Jewish figures presented in stereotypically antisemetic ways, generated immediate and considerable controversy. By the end of the day upon which the controversy erupted, the artwork was covered up.
Taring Padi was accused of antisemitism by German media as well Israel’s embassy to Germany—the latter voiced “disgust” in Times of Israel over the artwork’s inclusion in the world-renowned exhibition.
Taring Padi issued an apology for the controversy, stating they did not intend for the figures to be seen in an antisemitic light.
Ruangrupa, the curatorial collective responsible for inviting Taring Padi to participate in Documenta 15, said in an apology that they had failed to spot the offensive elements of Taring Padi's installation. Documenta management told the press that no administrators had screened any art in advance, out of respect for artistic freedom.
Some in Germany called for Taring Padi and Documenta organizers to be prosecuted, since anti-semetism is a crime in Germany. Those making such demands included high-profile figures such as the president of the German-Israel Society.
Germany's Minister of State for Culture Claudia Roth said the “mere” covering up of the work and apology is unacceptable. “The removal of this mural is only a first step. It must now be followed by others: It must be clarified how it could come about that this mural with anti-Semitic pictorial elements was installed there in the first place,” she said.
Results of Incident: The offending artwork was removed. Documenta's management announced that Ruangrupa had to review the entire show for offensive content with support from the Anne Frank Center in Frankfurt. Documenta organized a committee which they called a "scientific advisory panel" to investigate the incident and produce a report on it. The goal of the committee's report was to provide objective evidence of anti-Semitism in some of the works at Documenta 15, and its ultimate conclusion was that Documenta 15 became “an echo chamber for Israel-related anti-Semitism, and sometimes for pure anti-Semitism.” Ruangrupa curators and around 65 participating artists from Documenta 15 said, “because we stand by our rejection of censorship, we vigorously opposed the creation of this scientific advisory panel.”