antisemitism,  Arts

Anti-semitism in the arts: the case of Taring Padi

Jurek Molnar


It wasn’t me that made him fall
No, you can’t blame me at all

Bob Dylan, Who Killed Davy Moore?



Currently one of the most prestigious events in contemporary art is taking place. Every five years and now for the fifteenth time the documenta in Kassel, Germany, exhibits contemporary artists from all over the world and displays their works. The artistic leadership was this time given to a collective from Indonesia, ruangrupa, which is portrayed as follows:

“The Jakarta-based artists’ collective has built the foundation of their documenta fifteen on the core values and ideas of lumbung (an Indonesian term for a communal rice barn). lumbung as an artistic and economic model is rooted in principles such as collectivity, communal resource sharing, and equal allocation, and is embodied in all parts of the collaboration and the exhibition.”

The principle idea is summed up in the statement: “Towards documenta fifteen, ruangrupa invites community-oriented collectives, organizations, and institutions from around the world to practice lumbung with each other and work on new models of sustainability and collective practices of sharing.”

As someone who is interested in art, be it contemporary or traditional, my first impression was that this is not very unusual or out-of-the-box. Contemporary art has seen a lot of such artists, who have established themselves as proletarian collectivists, presenting their work as arte povera clones in the most distinguished places. As far as I am concerned the introduction sounds at least a little bit interesting, and I personally would like to practice lumbung with people from all over the world. However, on any regular occasion the documenta and its artistry would not have received much attention among regular people. It is after all a very distinguished group of academics and journalists, who have the economic and intellectual access to these kinds of exhibitions. The main act this year, ruangrupa’s most prominent headliner, is the Indonesian artists’ collective Taring Padi. It is described as follows:

“The Institute of People Oriented Culture Taring Padi was founded in 1998 by a group of progressive art students and activists in response to the Indonesian socio-political upheavals during the country’s reformation era. As such, Taring Padi’s artistic practice is always part of and contextualised within their socio-political and cultural solidarity and action. (…) In 2002 Taring Padi became a collective in order to further inclusivity and to facilitate personal dynamic of its members, whilst maintaining its progressive and militant character in realising the potential of art as a tool for social change.”

Their main occupations are “[s]treet protests, woodcutting workshops, art carnivals, and exhibitions in unorthodox spaces”, expressed in “[b]anners, woodcut posters, and wayang kardus (life-sized cardboard puppets), as well as the ever popular Dendang Kampungan music group” in order to “agitate, educate, and organise themselves, their community, and diverse solidarity actions they are involved in.”

All the ingredients are there to be moderately bored and leave it alone as it were. One could actually have ended here stating that this is simply another radical left art project that connects itself throughout the world by repeating the motives of anti-Imperialist rhetoric from the 70s.

But not this time. Since the documenta takes place in Germany, critics were infuriated by the most prominent artwork of Taring Padi, a painting on a large banner, which is called “People’s Justice”. The description of this banner by Taring Padi reads:

“The banner installation People’s Justice (2002) is a campaign against the militarism and violence we experienced during the military dictatorship of Suharto for 32 years in Indonesia, and its legacy as it exists up through the present day. Therefore, the depiction of military figures in the banner expresses our experiences. As such, all figures depicted in the banner reference commonly-known symbols within the Indonesian political context, for example corrupt bureaucracy, military generals and their soldiers which are symbolized by pigs, dogs, and rats to criticize an exploitative capitalist system and military violence. The banner was exhibited for the first time in the South Australia Art Festival in Adelaide in 2002. Since then, the banner has been exhibited in many different places and contexts, particularly during social political events, including: Jakarta Street Art Festival (2004), Taring Padi’s retrospective exhibition in Yogyakarta (2018) and the Polyphonic Southeast Asia Art exhibition in Nanjing, China (2019).”



What is not mentioned here is that some of the soldiers are depicted as pigs and one of them has a line on his helmet, which reads: “Mossad”. He is also wearing a Star of David on a scarf. Another figure is a somehow identifiable Jewish man with vampire teeth and an “SS” logo on his bowler hat. The banner itself was made 20 years ago and shown around the world at several festivals of the same kind and nobody ever seemed to have taken offence. At least that’s the perspective of Taring Padi. They were never challenged at all, because anti-Zionism is a standard idea among progressives all around the world and outside Europe they never triggered any sensitivities. Their perspective is what most progressives think about the issue. Anti-imperialism and anti-militarism come by default with a Palestinian flag. And so, nobody ever questioned that Taring Padi’s noble activism against Suharto’s dictatorship and their critique of militarism naturally has to involve Jews painted as pigs and vampires. If these are really “commonly-known symbols within the Indonesian political context”, then these must be quite regular images in their work and of course in their own bubble of global political leftwing milieus. Take a look at their heartfelt apology:

“Taring Padi is a progressive collective that has been campaigning to support and respect diversity. There is no record in our work that aims to portray any ethnic groups in a negative way. Figures, icons, caricatures, and other visual vocabularies in our works are always culturally specific to our own experiences. The display of People’s Justice in Friedrichsplatz is the first presentation of the banner in a European and German context. It is not meant to be related in any way to antisemitism. We are saddened that details in this banner are understood differently from its original purpose. We apologize for the hurt caused in this context. Therefore, with great regret, we cover up the work. This work then becomes a monument of mourning for the impossibility of dialogue at this moment. This monument, we hope, will be the starting point for a new dialogue.”

The buzzwords make it all clear that they don’t even understand the allegation. It is not so much anti-Semitic hatred they express, rather than a form of anti-Semitic ignorance, which has made itself a home in the realms of equity, inclusion and diversity. From their perspective, the anti-Semitic nature of these caricatures came as a total surprise, although several months ago some commentators in Germany had reported to the documenta board that Taring Padi has produced “problematic” content. These warnings were blatantly ignored.

The German public took offence nevertheless and the anti-Semitic caricatures went viral. Jewish representatives called for consequences, one director of the board resigned and apologies were published to settle the issue. In accordance with ruangrupa and Taring Padi the board decided to cover the parts of the banner, which caused the trouble. The General Director of the documenta, Dr. Sabine Schormann stated:

“The documenta management is not, and should not be, an authority to which artistic exhibits must be submitted for inspection in advance. The banner was installed at Friedrichsplatz last Friday afternoon after necessary repair work was carried out on the 20-year-old work. I would like to explicitly point out once again that the work was not conceived for Kassel, not for documenta fifteen, but was created in the context of Indonesia’s political protest movement and was shown there, and in other non-European locations. Now is the first time that the work is shown in Germany and in Europe. All parties involved regret that feelings were hurt in this way. Together we have decided to cover up the banner.”

The condemnations in the German press were shared by all mainstream media organizations; even demands for banning Taring Padi from the festival were widespread. That’s not nothing. But in the end, nobody really was to blame at all. Taring Padi’s excuse that the banner only reflects local political issues was accepted without further questions and they will continue to propagate their noble cause against imperialism and militarism. The embarrassment is captured by the phrase that it “was created in the context of Indonesia’s political protest movement”. Nobody it seems wasted any thought how anti-Semitism and Jews with SS signs on their hats do play into the political protests in Indonesia. This is not hatred, rather than ignorance. The painting will – probably – not lead to another Reichskristallnacht. But it reveals how common and unfiltered anti-Semitic imagery has become in the progressive circles, because they just don’t care. Not hatred, but sheer ignorance. ruangrupa, the group that is artistically responsible for the art at the whole festival said in their statement:

“It comes as a shock not only, but specifically to the Jewish community in Kassel and in all of Germany which we consider as our allies and which still live under the trauma of the past and the continued presence of discrimination, prejudice and marginalization. It also is a shock to our friends, neighbors, and colleagues for whom the struggle against all forms of oppression and racism is an existential element of their political, social, and artistic vision.”

The words are all fine, but everybody knows that it is just rhetoric written for the press. The “shock” is that they were called out for something they had never thought would be an issue. The absence of any intellectual energy to question the idea that Jews are “allies”, while depicting them in the most barbaric images, is typical for the ignorance of powerful people, who never have to reflect their own faults and shortcomings.

Taring Padi claims to be an organization with a local mission, hence the “context” becomes so important every time, while in reality the artists, the board and the media are members of a globalist nobility of DEI admins, who serve each other as alibis. The lesson we should take from this goes beyond the self-evident condemnation of racist caricatures. The problem that really crystallises in these events is the fact that contemporary art has become so boring that only vampire Jews can make headlines. The concepts of modern art repeat themselves quite often and Taring Padi is doing what many others have done fifty or sixty years ago, even the motives, the rhetoric and the political formulas are mostly the same. The documenta (like all other high-end art festivals) is for decades now the spearhead of progressivism and recycles every time the current ideas postmodernism has cultivated. The relevance of such events outside the art establishment is very small, because it is more or less a successful business model generating funds and prestige for communist nobles, rather than an artistic enterprise that communicates interesting new perspectives. Art has nothing to challenge any more, it just affirms the conventional wisdom and is at best very expensive conformism. The elites that fund and order such art, are all left leaning liberal opportunists whose single interest in art is to reproduce requested political impulses. Art is the toy of a powerful and wealthy class of bigots who fund sculptures of their own bigotry.

The problem with contemporary art then is that it represents in its entirety the marketing branch of a globalist ruling class, which expects a political return value it is able to capitalise along the revenue streams of the modern nobility. The scandal is not so much the anti-Semitism, which outside Europe has occurred to no one as significant and is basically more or less a standard routine among all left-wingers globally. The scandal is that the machine of contemporary art claims to be a critique of power, elites and racism, while it is actually the power, the elite and the racism. It hides this fact very carefully, trained in excluding, denunciating and smearing anyone who comes as a dissenter, but like a force of nature, it exposes itself occasionally. When it does, the best conclusion is to look at the art and judge it by its own terms.

It will fail, any time.

Update on 17 July 2022 (h/t Thomask) :

Documenta’s Director Sabine Schormann has now resigned. She has also apologised for not recognising the mural’s anti-Semitism.