Documenta art exhibition director resigns amid anti-Semitism scandal


Central Europe


Sabine Schormann. Photo EPA, Sascha Steinbach

Director Sabine Schormann of the German art event Documenta in Kassel has submitted her resignation after controversy arose over a work allegedly containing anti-Semitic symbols. An interim successor will initially be sought.

A work of art called 'People's Justice by the Indonesian collective Taring Padi was covered with a black sheet a few days after the opening of Documenta 15 in mid-June after controversy arose on social media about anti-Semitic symbols that were said to be on the work. Zoomed-in photos in German media showed, among other things, an Israeli soldier with a pig's head, who also wears a scarf with a Star of David on it.

The fuss about People's Justice has been accompanied in recent weeks by calls for the 60-year-old Schormann to resign. She was said to have been too passive and to have paid too little attention to the criticism that had already been voiced about Taring Padi's work before the exhibition opened. The Supervisory Board called the exhibition of the work "clearly transgressive" and stated that it had "caused considerable damage" to Documenta. This reports the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Anne Frank

Most recently, the head of the Anne Frank educational institution, Meron Mendel, withdrew as a consultant to Documenta. He was supposed to be part of a commission of experts that was supposed to check the remaining works of the Documenta for further anti-Semitic content. Schormann did not follow up on their announcements with action, he criticised.

Part of the controversial artwork. Photo Twitter, EWagensveld

As a result, Hito Steyerl, one of the most important international artists, declared that she was withdrawing her works from Documenta. According to her, the Documenta organisation did not have a good response to the situation. "This refers to the repeated refusal to facilitate a sustained and structurally anchored inclusive debate around the exhibition, as well as the virtual refusal to accept mediation", Steyerl said in an email, according to the German weekly Die Zeit. The departure of Steyerl was a big blow. Steyerl is known worldwide as an important artist who does not shy away from political themes and often takes the measure of big business in her work - a subject that connects her to many artists in this edition.


Meanwhile, the Indonesian collective Taring Padi, which made the challenged artwork People's Justice, has apologised in an interview in Die Zeit. Five artists of the collective that worked on the metres-high work (and which is now twenty years old) say that they made a mistake with the two caricatures: between the two figures, there is an Israeli soldier with a pig's head and a man with rat's teeth who carries a symbol of both the Mossad and the SS.

"For us, they were two of many evils," they say, noting democracies that supported the Suharto regime and thus made possible the massacres under his rule. "We didn't understand that these caricatures were anti-Semitic. Anti-Semitism is not a big issue in Indonesia; we hardly knew what it was. The fact that it was pointed out to us and we learnt what anti-Semitism is is a learning process for us. We should have been more sensitive and careful."



Subscribe for an update, and receive a documentary and e-book for free.

Choose your subscriptions*

You may subscribe to multiple lists.