With a little more than six months to go until its opening, Documenta has come under scrutiny for its alleged connections to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which seeks to push the Israeli government toward granting complete equality for Palestinian citizens.
The Alliance Against Anti-Semitism Kassel, a group based in the German city where the quinquennial takes place, accused Documenta of “involvement of anti-Israeli activists” in its forthcoming edition. It pointed to the inclusion of the Ramallah-based Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center (KSCC) on the artistic team headed up by the Indonesian collective ruangrupa as alleged proof of this. A press release that includes multiple inaccuracies was issued by the Alliance earlier this month.
According to its website, KSCC supports Palestinian artists with the aim of creating “a pluralistic, critical liberating culture through research, query, and participation, and that provides an open space for the community to produce vibrant and liberating cultural content.” Khalil Sakakini, the Palestinian intellectual and philosopher from whom the center takes its name, kept a rich library that is now housed at the center.
Despite the factual inaccuracies put forward by the Alliance Against Anti-Semitism Kassel, the group’s release gained traction with multiple German outlets, including Der Zeit, a paper of record. This week, Der Zeit published an op-ed by columnist Thomas E. Schmidt in which he was spurred to ask: “Does Documenta have an anti-Semitism problem?”
Some have pushed back against Schmidt’s column. Calling that article “poorly researched,” Elke Buhr, the editor-in-chief of the German art magazine Monopol, wrote, “One can criticize the ‘Documenta Fifteen’ in many ways. But one thing is clear: it makes no sense to drag this exhibition project into the depths of the local BDS debate, which has long since assumed the character of a culture war against the ‘identitarian left.’ It applies to every international exhibition project: as soon as you invite artists with connections to the Arab world or the Global South, you will meet people who have a different attitude towards BDS than the official guidelines of German politics envisage.”
The allegations being voiced by the Alliance Against Anti-Semitism Kassel revolve around two artists, Lara Khaldi and Yazan Khalili, who are participating in Documenta 15 as part of the collective the Question of Funding, which “aims to rethink the economy of funding and the culture it produces in Palestine,” according to a biography on the quinquennial’s website. Both Khaldi and Khalili formerly served in leadership positions at KSCC, though Khaldi is no longer affiliated with the center, and Khalili remains on only as a member of a “general assembly” there. The Alliance Against Anti-Semitism Kassel falsely accused Documenta of attempting to hide its connections to KSCC through the participation of the Question of Funding. The artist collective and KSCC are not related entities, and the collective is on the artist list for Documenta while KSCC is on the 15th edition’s artistic team.
In a press release issued earlier this month, the Alliance Against Anti-Semitism Kassel claimed that the Question of Funding and KSCC, as well as two Documenta advisory board members, curator Charles Esche and artist Amar Kanwar, support the BDS movement. Nowhere in the biographies for the Question of Funding and KSCC is BDS mentioned. Esche signed a 2020 open letter by German artists about BDS, and in 2011, Kanwar was one of five artists to withdraw from a show of Indian art at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in solidarity with BDS.
Amid the controversy, Documenta itself posted a short statement to its website on Wednesday. “documenta fifteen in no way supports anti-Semitism,” the quinquennial wrote. “It takes the stand for freedom of art and science, and supports efforts to resolutely oppose anti-Semitism, racism, right-wing extremism, violent religious fundamentalism and any kind of discrimination. documenta fifteen will deal intensively with the criticism.”
BDS has been controversial throughout the world, though its views have been considered especially contentious in Germany, whose Parliament deemed the movement illegal in 2019. Artists in Europe have periodically become the subject of handwringing over BDS. In 2019, the German city of Aachen withdrew a prize for artist Walid Raad over his alleged involvement with BDS; a museum there subsequently went against the city’s orders and ordered the prize anyway. In 2020, artist Zineb Sedira, who is representing France at this year’s Venice Biennale, likewise faced controversy from right-wing outlets over alleged connections to BDS. She has denied involvement with the group.
This is the second controversy Documenta 15 has weathered in the past month. Sakuliu Pavavaljung, a Paiwan artist expected to participate in the forthcoming edition, has been accused of sexual assault by multiple women. The artist, who denied the allegations, was dropped as Taiwan’s representative at the Venice Biennale, and he was “initially” suspended from Documenta, which has not yet definitively said whether he will still participate.