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Berlin, Germany – Just a few weeks before the opening of documenta 15, one of the world’s most prestigious art events, Palestinian artist Yazan Khalili received a WhatsApp message telling him there had been a break-in at his exhibition space.
He arrived at the room in a former nightclub in Kassel, central Germany, to find the intruders had let off a fire extinguisher and spray-painted what appeared to be death threats on the walls.
The perpetrators remain unknown, but the vandalism marked an alarming escalation in a controversy that has been rumbling in German media for months, after an obscure blog in January accused artists and organisers of documenta, in particular Khalili and his The Question of Funding collective, of anti-Semitism.
This year’s documenta – which runs from June 18 to September 25, 2022 – is curated by Indonesian art collective Ruangrupa, which has broken with tradition by using a collaborative format and inviting a wider range of participants from the Global South than previous editions of the quinquennial exhibition.
But the debate surrounding the event has raised questions about whether Germany’s approach to combating anti-Semitism discriminates against Palestinians and supporters of Palestinian rights, and limits artistic freedom.
“There was so much emotion and fear,” Khalili told Al Jazeera. ”This has been building since January – lots of hostile, aggressive media campaigns … against me and other Palestinian artists, or artists who showed support for Palestine.”
Documenta organisers interpreted the “187” sprayed on the walls as a reference to murder in California’s penal code, and “Peralta” to Spanish neo-Nazi Isabel Peralta, who has links to the extreme right in Germany.
The incident on the night of May 28 has led to concerns for the safety of artists in Kassel, which is about a two-hour drive from Hanau, where a right-wing extremist murdered nine people in a racist killing spree in 2020.
“There is a line that has been crossed. Before all these defamations and aggressions were digital. Now they have become physical,” said artist Yasmine el-Sabbagh, whose work involving an audio-visual archive of life in the Palestinian refugee camp Burj al-Shamali will feature in documenta. She was named in the blog post in January.
In response to the targeting of Khalili’s exhibition space, documenta said it had filed a criminal complaint with police and would step up security at the event.
“We are united against the racist attacks that started this sequence of events,” Ruangrupa said in a statement published on Friday.
“We also express our dismay and disappointment at the amplification that the original baseless blog post of disinformation and manipulated content received in some of the mainstream media. We denounce the media participation in these smear campaigns,” it added.
Germany’s support for Israel is a cornerstone of its post-war political identity and was named a raison d’etat by former Chancellor Angela Merkel.
In 2019, the German parliament declared the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which advocates an economic and cultural boycott of Israel over its occupation of Palestine, to be explicitly “anti-Semitic”. In the years since, supporters of BDS have been stripped of awards, disinvited from events, and publicly denounced as anti-Semites.
Germany is home to Europe’s largest population of Palestinians, but many find the political climate is becoming increasingly hostile towards them.
“You are suspected of not sharing the German memory culture, the consensus on Holocaust memory,” said Palestinian-German academic Sami Khatib. “And of course you’re scrutinised for that.”
In May, Berlin police prohibited all Palestinian rallies on the weekend of the anniversary of the Nakba – the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948 – on the grounds that there was a high risk of anti-Semitic behaviour, which organisers denied. This included a vigil organised by a Jewish group for Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed by Israeli security forces in May.
“From a German perspective Palestinians are problematic; their very existence is problematic,” said Khatib. “This is not all of Germany, but this is what you get from major journals, certain politicians, and also certain NGOs who are engaged in a civil society fight against anti-Semitism. And today, this fight is mostly against Palestinians.”
The recent targeting of Palestinian artists at documenta began when the news blog Ruhrbarone published an anonymously authored post sourced from the Kassel Alliance against Anti-Semitism, a group that identifies as part of the “anti-German” scene.
The anti-Germans are a left-wing sect that identify closely with the State of Israel and are staunchly Islamophobic.
The blog post accused several figures involved in documenta of anti-Semitism for their support of BDS or signing of petitions critical of Israel. It focused particularly on Khalili and The Question of Funding, and their connection to the Khalil al-Sakakini Cultural Centre in Ramallah. The author painted al-Sakakini, an Arab nationalist intellectual born in the 1870s, as a Nazi sympathiser – an account rebutted by historian Jens Hansen.
The accusations were picked up and repeated by major German-language newspapers from across the political spectrum, including left-wing Die Tageszeitung, liberal Die Zeit and conservative Die Welt – none of which initially contacted Khalili, he said.
Though several newspaper contributions and statements from public figures, including the head of the Anne Frank Educational Centre, have dismissed the claims of anti-Semitism made by the blog post, the issue has continued to resurface, even dragging in Germany’s culture minister Claudia Roth.
In April, stickers were posted on Ruangrupa’s headquarters, which read “Freedom instead of Islam! No compromises with barbarism!” and “Solidarity with Israel”.
Ruangrupa pushed back against what it called “bad-faith” attacks in a public statement, saying that the “alliance” was in fact one person, whose allegations were totally false. Ruangrupa has organised a series of online talks to discuss the “role of art and artistic freedom in the face of rising anti-Semitism, racism, and Islamophobia”, which featured artists Eyal Weizman and Hito Steyerl. After the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany wrote to Roth to criticise the composition of the panels, Ruangrupa scrapped the series and said it would allow the event to speak for itself.
“It’s so obvious that it’s a smear campaign from the very beginning, that all these accusations are not based on anything. They are incendiary,” said el-Sabbagh, adding that many news outlets failed to scrutinise the blog’s racist language.
“It’s really shocking to see that mainstream media doesn’t reflect critically on this. Many of them just pick this up to put more oil on fire.”
In a statement published on Friday, the Kassel Alliance against Anti-Semitism denied any connection with the vandalism, which it suggests was committed by local youths and was not political, but referred to the Hamburg hip-hop group 187 Strassenbande and unknown Filipino rapper RJ Peralto, who has no obvious connection to Germany.
The group did not claim responsibility for the stickers, but said they were a legitimate form of solidarity with Israel. “We make no secret of the fact that we are critical of Islam,” it added.
Without a lobby to defend them, Palestinians make an easy target for German media outlets who wish to associate them with anti-Semitism, said Khatib.
“It’s kind of a public performance of moral goodness, of being self-righteous.”
Khalili initially offered interviews to the German press to defend himself, but found the tone of questioning from journalists to be frequently hostile or presumptive of his guilt. One asked him whether the curators made a mistake in inviting his collective – “a humiliating question”, he said.
Though he had exhibited several times before in Germany without a problem, he now found himself spending countless hours grappling with a crisis into which the collective had been thrown. The art community in Kassel has been incredibly supportive, he said, but the ordeal has been exhausting.
Members of the collective have had to rethink the exhibition, which will examine alternative economic structures to the institutional model of funding art in Palestine, to ensure that individuals and communities in Palestine who are involved will be protected.
“I think I was too innocent thinking that we can come and express our work,” Khalili said.
Kapwani Kiwanga to represent Canada at 60th Venice Biennale
Kapwani Kiwanga, the Ontario-born artist who lives and works in France, will represent Canada at the 60th Venice Biennale, the National Gallery of Canada announced Thursday.
Kiwanga will create work for the Canada Pavilion in the Biennale’s Giardini park where the international art exhibition opens April 20, 2024. Her participation will be curated by Gaetane Verna, former director of Toronto’s Power Plant and now director the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University.
Kiwanga, who grew up in Brantford, Ont., and studied anthropology at McGill University before moving to France for graduate studies in art, is based in Paris. Born in Hamilton, she is of Tanzanian and Scottish ancestry.
Starting with social and historical research, she uses video, performance, sculpture and especially installation to look at power structures and colonialism. She has created installations that investigate the manipulative elements of prison architecture; in another major series, she has recreated the floral arrangements that can be seen in the 20th-century photographs of independence ceremonies or military parades in African nations.
In the Giardini, she will be provided with a strong backdrop for her themes: The park features national pavilions for all the traditional colonial powers. The Canada Pavilion, a shell-shaped modernist wood-and-glass structure built in 1958 and renovated in 2018, is a small building sandwiched between the larger German, British and French pavilions.
Kiwanga, who was chosen by a panel of Canadian and U.S. curators assembled by the National Gallery, is already an international star. In 2020, she was awarded the Prix Marcel Duchamp, France’s top art prize, and in 2018 she won Canada’s Sobey Award for an emerging artist.
She has exhibited widely in Europe and, in February, the Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto will unveil the first major survey of her work in Canada. That exhibition will feature five new commissions as part of her research into the politics of botany.
In Venice, the 60th Biennale will continue to Nov. 24, 2024.
Sussex Drive art gallery showing photo exhibit of the ‘hidden beauty’ of convoy protesters
A Montreal photographer who says he found “hidden beauty” when he visited last year’s convoy protest in Ottawa is exhibiting his portraits of protesters at a Sussex Drive gallery, coinciding with the occupation’s first anniversary.
“We are taking absolutely no political stance on this show whatsoever,” Bex said. The show is entitled “Fringe.”
Bex acknowledged that the occupation “was a polarizing event for sure.” But he contended that Ozzello’s photo have artistic merit. “At the end of the day, they’re really nice pictures, really well presented,” Bex said.
Ozzello said he came to Ottawa soon after the trucks arrived and stayed for two weeks in a motel, drawn to document the event. He returned a few more times until the protesters were forced to leave.
“I search for hidden beauty… that often goes unnoticed, and when I came to Ottawa, I found a similar beauty in the spirit of those Canadian truckers,” said Ozzello in response to emailed questions.
“I know talk of the truckers can be very triggering to some and I hope my less critical viewpoint of the protest isn’t a complete turn-off,” Ozzello said. “This is coming from someone double-jabbed who sewed several thousand masks for my doctor friends at the beginning of the pandemic.
“There was something romantic to seeing these primal men and women getting together to defy the government and stand up for what they believe, and I wanted to convey this more human side of the truckers,” he continued. “They had this quixotic grunginess that I love to photograph.
“When one of them saw my old Polaroid camera, he asked me to take a photograph of him – then took out a Sharpie and signed the print,” Ozzello said. “And that’s how it all started.”
He said he was apprehensive about meeting people who were violent extremists, but that wasn’t his experience.
“I eventually started talking to many of the truckers and realized that these people really weren’t much different from myself,” Ozzello said.
“These were just ordinary Canadians that were tired of being confined, afraid of what long term side-effects of the vaccine might be, that just wanted to return to a normal life.”
“Journalists have received death threats littered with racist epithets. Others have been spat on and verbally and physically harassed. In another case, the windows of a CBC/Radio-Canada news cruiser were broken,” said a Jan. 28, 2022 press release from the CAJ.
Veteran Ottawa photographer Paul Couvrette, who lives and works in Centretown, said he too visited the convoy protest several times out of curiosity and that he took “thousands” of photos.
“I had at least two or three people threaten me,” Couvrette said. “I did have people tell me, ‘Put the camera away, delete all the pictures.’ I’ve been around enough that that didn’t bother me.”
He added that after his first few visits to the protests, he returned with a large Canadian flag on his backpack and was greeted as an ally. “Suddenly people went, ‘He’s one of us.’ It was an us-and-them thing.”
“I disagree with 99 per cent of what the convoy people wanted,” Couvrette said. But he called Ozzello’s sympathetic portrayal “valid.”
Said Couvrette: “The photographer is going to focus on the human side and there is a human side.”
Free ports are places with the ultra-rich store their art antiquities to avoid tax and duties
Free ports are warehouses where the 0.01 percent stash their collections of “art, antiquities, wine, gold, jewels, and other priceless artifacts and never pay tax on them,” says Wyatt Cavalier in his newsletter, The WC. One warehouse in Geneva holds more than $10 billion in art, never to be seen by the owners, who would rather avoid paying taxes on their Velazquez than look at it. Similar dragon hoards are in Luxembourg, Monaco, Singapore, Zurich, Beijing, and Delaware.
They exist outside the formal jurisdiction of any country; the clients remain anonymous and the assets are kept a secret.
And though you may have never heard of free ports, they’re a big deal in the art world:
- 28% of artists and collectors have used a free port;
- 42% of dealers and brokers say their clients use them.
Why use a free port?
If you buy a $10m painting from a dealer in France and want to bring it to the US (or anywhere else, really), you’ll have to pay import duties as high as $2m – $3m. Storing it in a free port gets around this. For around $1,000 per month, you’ll never pay those import taxes on your van Gogh.
Moreover, when it comes time to sell your piece, you can skip sales tax via the free port’s informal economy. The crate moves from your unit to the buyer’s unit, and the money moves from her Swiss bank account to yours.
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