Can the Palestinian Belong to a Universal History?

Yazan Khalili on how German media used a smear campaign to disrupt the exhibition documenta.

Ben Ratskoff
July 28, 2022

Mohamed Abusal: Jawdat’s Garden II, 2016, acrylic on canvas, 75 x 58 in

Photo: Ben Ratskoff

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In the months leading up to this year’s documenta, the international contemporary art exhibition held every five years in Kassel, Germany, two participating collectives became the subjects of a smear campaign. The Indonesian collective ruangrupa—the artistic directors chosen to curate this year’s show—as well as the participating Palestinian collective The Question of Funding were both targeted with allegations of antisemitism. Originating in a January blog post by a previously obscure group called the Alliance Against Antisemitism Kassel, these accusations were based on little other than certain collective members’ support for the BDS movement and other forms of protest against the state of Israel, yet they spread through German publications like wildfire.

documenta—founded by curator Arnold Bode in 1955 to rehabilitate the German cultural scene that had atrophied after the censorship of the Nazi years, and now in its 15th iteration—tried to address these accusations head-on with a series of conversations between scholars, artists, activists. But these attempts at dialogue were suddenly derailed in early May when some participants began to withdraw, reportedly swayed by a letter from the President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, who claimed that “the orientation of the panels has a clear bias against [discussion of] anti-Semitism.” In late May, as the smear campaign continued, the exhibition space in Kassel for The Question of Funding was vandalized. Then, just after documenta 15’s opening weekend, the Indonesian collective Taring Padi, another group participating in the exhibition, unveiled a massive banner, entitled People’s Justice, that included an image of an apparently Orthodox Jewish man with fangs, venomous red eyes, and SS bolts on his hat. The banner was swiftly covered, then removed. Taring Padi apologized; ruangrupa, too, issued a lengthy apology for their curatorial misstep, writing, “we collectively failed to spot the figure in the work, which is a character that evokes classical stereotypes of antisemitism . . . . This imagery, as we now fully understand, connects seamlessly to the most horrific episode of German history in which Jewish people were targeted and murdered on an unprecedented scale.” But the hostile response to the exhibition has continued and spread—including at a special hearing of the Bundestag Committee of Culture and Media where parliament members scrutinized documenta and the German cultural landscape at large for BDS support, which they conflated with antisemitism.

After attending documenta on its opening weekend, I spoke with Question of Funding member Yazan Khalili—an architect, artist, and cultural producer currently pursuing a PhD at the Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis, and formerly the director of the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center, a Palestinian arts and culture organization in Ramallah—about his participation in documenta and the accusations launched against him and his fellow artists. This interview has been condensed and edited.

Ben Ratskoff: How did The Question of Funding (QoF) collective come together?

Yazan Khalili: QoF is a young collective formed only three years ago. Grassroots Al-Quds, a Palestinian organization working to build networks between the fragmented Palestinian communities in Jerusalem, used to hold meetings in the garden of the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center. We would have cigarettes and coffee and discuss how the donor economy shapes institutional structures and how we might become less dependent on those structures. Who funds which institutions? What kind of power do funders have over the institution’s activities? How are certain political projects practiced through funding processes? To explore alternative structures of working together, we eventually decided to move outside institutions altogether and form a collective . It’s not about refusing funding, but rather finding modes of funding outside the donor economy.

BR: documenta had a unique structure this year. It was the first time members of a collective were selected to serve as artistic directors. It was also the first time that a majority of the invited artists were from the Global South. ruangrupa framed their artistic direction around a practice inspired by lumbung, the Indonesian word for a communal rice barn, which is where the surplus harvest is stored and distributed for the benefit of the community. The lumbung at documenta was created when ruangrupa invited 14 collectives to become members, who then invited other collectives and individuals to collaborate. How did you come to be involved?

YK: There is an organization called Arts Collaboratory, made up of contemporary art institutions from around the world, and they visited the Sakakini Center in 2018. When ruangrupa invited Arts Collaboratory to be part of the artistic team of documenta, they then invited us and we had a long discussion about what we might create. We found their central ideas of translation and harvesting very exciting. How might we do something on the ground in Palestine, and then find a translation for it in Kassel, so that the knowledge can be harvested and ultimately go beyond both local contexts?

BR: After Arts Collaborative invited you, you then invited the Gazan artist collective Eltiqa to participate. How did this decision come about?

YK: We knew about Eltiqa for a long time, but we had never met their members in person. I live in the West Bank, they live in Gaza; it’s nearly impossible for us to get to one another. They’ve been working together in one of the most intense places on earth for around 20 years—and they’ve done so without becoming an NGO. The NGO-ization of cultural institutions is highly contested in Palestine. If you want to receive international funding, you have to register and become an NGO. And then you are stuck with structures that make you dependent on the funding. You have to show growth. You become high maintenance. You need budgets all the time. You have to spend the money, so you make enormous projects and employ a huge number of people who then become dependent on you.

Eltiqa proves that you do not need to become an NGO to have a sustainable artistic practice. They have a communal space. They apply for big grants, and they have received over a hundred thousand dollars in funding. They created a model rooted in many economies, where they don’t depend only on funding to support the space but also on local resources and on their individual incomes.

BR: How did the exhibition itself then come together?

YK: There are four parts to our participation in documenta. There is the exhibition in Kassel, which the QoF curated; we invited Eltiqa to show work there. Second, we worked with children, writers, illustrators, and designers to make children’s books as a way to harvest the knowledge we were producing. In a form kids can read, these books asked: What is use value? What is an economy? What are our local resources? Third, we created Dayra, a platform individuals and organizations can use for generating and circulating communal economic value. Dayra, which is Arabic for “circle” and “circling,” inverts the typical funding process by creating a blockchain-based system that community members can use to exchange resources even with no budget at all. And finally, there is the AKA Network Collective. We invited collectives and individuals based in Kassel to use the resources that documenta grants us. So we became hosts of local collectives, while, at the same time, they hosted us in their town. We tried to respond to the question: How can you open up a resource and become part of the community? We wanted to work against the approach that is popular in Palestine and elsewhere: International artists parachute in with exhibitions; they come, extract, and leave.

BR: How did you approach curating work by members of Eltiqa?

YK: We approached the process as a research project. As Eltiqa was showing us work they had been creating, we brought our questions to the conversation. Were they creating political or apolitical art? Can apolitical art even come out of a place like Gaza? Lots of their work shown in Kassel is very playful, very colorful, which would seem to avoid the context of Gaza. Even the research presented alongside the works is sometimes just about the day-to-day issues of artists.

At the same time, these geopolitical questions are inescapable. In our research, we found lots of information about certain years and very little about others. And when we asked Eltiqa about the scarce years, they said, “Oh, this was after the war. For a year or two, we could not produce anything. We were too traumatized. Or we were thinking, ‘Why are we doing art now? Why make paintings that can be bombed and destroyed?’”

You can see how the political and artistic intertwine in, for example, Mohamed Abusal’s beautiful, colorful paintings of cactuses, which are especially interesting because the cactus is a very political plant in the Palestinian context. It was used to create a fence around houses. In many communities in Palestine that were destroyed after the Nakba, the only proof of existence was that the cacti grew back; they recreated the fences around destroyed houses.

BR: Were you thinking about the specific context of Kassel—in Germany, in Europe—when you discussed which artworks to show? I’m thinking about Mohammad Al-Hawajri’s Guernica Gaza series, for example, which redeploys iconic examples of European art, including Picasso’s Guernica, to depict Israeli armed forces and Palestinian civilians. Some have since accused the artist of equating Jews and Nazis through the allusion to the fascist bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War.

YK: Since the smear campaign was targeting us with accusations of antisemitism while we were preparing to come to Kassel, we thought very carefully about everything we were bringing. I honestly never anticipated that reaction to Guernica Gaza. Guernica is human history. It’s for all of us. This is my question: Can the Palestinian belong to a universal history? I don’t want to speak on behalf of Mohammad al-Hawajri, but, from our discussions, I understand the whole series to be about looking at Eurocentric art and trying to ask how it works in contemporary contexts outside Europe. Whether we like it or not, European art has become universal; it is the art that we all look at.

BR: In the six months leading up to documenta there was a series of accusations of antisemitism against not only QoF but also ruangrupa and then, in May, your exhibition space was vandalized. How did you respond to this attack?

YK: What was surprising for me was that German media was ready to accept any accusation of antisemitism without fact-checking or considering the contexts: Who is saying these things? Why? Unverified accusations are scary. Physical harm is, of course, an expected consequence. What was important for me was that individuals from the AKA collective wrote a statement condemning these attacks; they said an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us. Also, the BPoC Festival collective [a Kassel-based group critical of documenta management’s treatment of marginalized artists] showed support. That created a safety net. So these attacks clarified standpoints all around.

BR: Let’s talk about the Taring Padi banner unveiled on opening weekend, which included, among a dizzying array of figures, an antisemitic caricature of an Orthodox Jewish man. When people started to identify the antisemitic image, many who had defended documenta in the months leading up to the opening said they felt betrayed. How did you react?

YK: It was like, “Fuck.” We’d had an amazing opening few days, and then we fell right on our faces. And the situation kept escalating because it was stoked by a very hostile environment. To be honest, I would say this environment almost made it inevitable. It was not inevitable that an antisemitic work would appear at documenta, but it probably was inevitable that some work at documenta would be labeled as such, given the attempt to read any critique of the state of Israel as antisemitic. Hostile German media outlets were determined to find something, and if they didn’t find it in Taring Padi, they would have found it somewhere else, twisting any critical detail into a very simplistic antisemitic reading and repeating the same accusation again and again until it becomes a fact. What they got is something very clearly problematic. At the same time, the way the banner was utilized to demonize all of us artists at documenta—to say, “Look, it proves what we have been saying for months is true”—this, for me, was too much.

When people who supported us said they had been betrayed, it felt like a kind of withdrawal. Their support proved to be limited; they demanded purity. You know, I have so many problems with the Palestinian struggle, but I don’t demonize it. I problematize it, I work with it. I cannot ask the Palestinian struggle or the struggle against homophobia or the struggle against racism to be a pure struggle. We have to be able to critique ourselves while staying engaged.

BR: What have you taken from this experience? Have you considered whether you want to continue working in Germany?

YK: I’ve noticed that there is an effort in Germany to separate the fight against antisemitism from other struggles. The fight against antisemitism is used as a tool in the ongoing occupation of Palestine, to silence any voice that is critical of Israel. Because it has become a state tool of oppression, the fight against antisemitism is not allowed, in a way, to become a grassroots movement. This model forecloses the possibilities for different struggles to open up to each other and work together. But all of what is happening tells us that the fight against antisemitism and for Palestinian liberation have to go hand in hand together and with other struggles against racism and state oppression. On your own, your struggle is weak, but it is part of a larger struggle; together, we are stronger.

I don’t want to work in Germany if I won’t feel safe there. I’m not interested in coming to fight for Germans’ freedom of speech. Of course, freedom of speech is a global fight, but local collectives will have to take it up first in their own contexts.

Ben Ratskoff is a writer, teacher, and scholar based in Los Angeles. 

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