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Olu Oguibe’s “Monument to Strangers and Refugees,” one of the most visible works commissioned for last year’s Documenta 14, has come under increasing threat due to the rise of right-wing, anti-immigrant sentiment across Germany.
The work in question, a concrete obelisk, reads “I was a stranger and you took me in,” a verse from Matthew 25:35 inscribed in gold letters in German, English, Arabic, and Turkish. The work “was designed specifically for Kassel and the public square on which it stands,” Oguibe, who was awarded the prestigious Arnold Bode Prize in Kassel in July 2017 has said, describing it as a “call to action” that references the plight of people in diaspora who have been forced to flee their homes either due to war, famine, or otherwise.
The obelisk, which stands nearly 54 feet tall, was inaugurated in June 2017 as part of the quinquennial exhibition. According to a statement released in July 2017 by the Arnold Bode Prize committee, the work “is an affirmation of the timeless, universal principles of attention and care towards all those affected by flight and persecution.”
In January 2018, the Art Newspaper reported that officials from the city of Kassel had begun a crowdfunding campaign in an effort to keep Oguibe’s obelisk on the site for which it was designed in Königsplatz (King’s Square), a pedestrian zone in the city center. At the time, Kassel’s chief culture official, Susanne Völker, said that the goal of the campaign was to raise €600,000 (~$700,000), the amount Oguibe had requested for the purchase of the work.
However, the campaign failed after three months to meet its target, raising only €126,000 (~$147,000). Nevertheless, Oguibe agreed to sell the work to the city at a discounted rate, so long as the work would remain in Königsplatz. Since 1977, Documenta has acquired 16 sculptures or installations permanently for the city.
In Kassel’s bid to acquire the work, Völker is reported to have suggested moving the obelisk to another location in the less central Holländischer Platz, or Dutch Square, a move Oguibe believes is motivated by pressure from the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party to rid the city center of the work. According Kassel City Councilman Thomas Materner, a member of the AfD, the obelisk is “ideologically polarizing, disfigured art,” an apparent evocation of the term “degenerate art,” which was adopted in the 1920s by the Nazi Party in an effort to denounce modern art that did not conform to its toxic ideology.
“The Obelisk says no more and no less than ‘Love Thy Neighbor’ (Mark 12:31). But here it is the stranger who says it: ‘I was a stranger and you took me in’—simply stating a fact without imposing a moral imperative on the host,” Documenta 14 artistic director Adam Szymczyk told Hyperallergic following the recent move by the Kassel city council to relocate the obelisk. “I think it is symptomatic that no political declaration of support has come in favor of the Obelisk from the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) that rules Hessia [the state where Kassel is located], and neither from the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) that rules in Kassel. The messages coming from those parties have been unclear at best. The spectacle we have been witnessing in Kassel is not only a problem of AfD and other nationalist, populist-rightwing parties rising to prominence in Germany and elsewhere, but the problem of mainstream politics failing or fearing to take a position vis-à-vis the urgent issues in our societies, as in Germany as elsewhere.”
In a recent interview with Monopol, Oguibe voiced similar frustrations. “The City and SPD have been pressuring me by referring to the number of students who would see the work at Höllandischer Platz,” the artist said. “But the obelisk was not made for students. It was not made for the university. It was made for the traditional meeting point of all the people of Kassel, and not just the ‘outsiders’ on the north side.”
In response to claims that the obelisk may be removed from Königsplatz due to political pressure from the AfD, Kassel’s chief culture official Susanne Völker sent Hyperallergic the following statement:
The ongoing discussion within the city council concerning the site on which Oguibe’s obelisk is to remain, is hardly a result of pressure by the right-wing AfD party, even though Oguibe might have gotten this impression due to some readers’ comments on the online outlet from the local daily, HNA. It is rather fueled by a multitude of reasons.
Firstly, the Königsplatz as the site where the Obelisk has been set up, was originally solely designated to Oguibe for the duration of the Documenta exhibition itself. Now, in the aftermath of the d14 the City Council of Kassel has to take many aspects into consideration when it comes to deciding whether the Obelisk can remain on the Königsplatz or if it should be preserved on a different site, like the forthcoming Documenta Institute, which will serve as a prominent outlet of the most important contemporary art exhibition in the world between the shows themselves. Among these aspects are urbanistic and security reasons as well as the fact that the Königsplatz should be an open ‘canvas’ for future Documenta exhibitions and their artists. As an example of urbanistic concerns, we might underline the fact that the Königsplatz is the focal point of an ongoing discussion regarding its re-construction and architectural alteration.
Let us also add that the Holländischer Platz, as the designated site for the Documenta Institute, is not a place for “outsiders” as Oguibe has described it lately, nor is it a compromise. It rather is a site of equal qualities regarding both the artistic intention of Oguibe and the importance of the place in the lives of Kassel’s population.
However, Oguibe has repeatedly asserted that the obelisk is a site-specific work made for Königslplatz, not another location in Kassel. He maintains that the Holländische Platz has a completely different social, historical, and architectural significance and that in an area with 25,000 students and migrant communities he would have made a completely different work.
“Oguibe’s work is being dragged into the middle of a political and social struggle,” Alexander Koch of KOW, the Berlin gallery representing Oguibe in the matter, told Hyperallergic. “It’s being politicized on all sides.” He added that the notion of “outsiders,” as it has been cited in the German press, “has been quoted out of context to accuse Oguibe of discriminating against the community.”
With respect to the current climate of cultural politics in Germany, Koch accused the AfD of using culture as a means of generating controversy to serve the party’s ideological agenda. “The AfD doesn’t have much to propose in many policy fields other than culture and immigration,” he said. “More than any other political party, the AfD is asserting itself in the cultural sector more and more.”
The AfD party is led by Jörg Meuthen and Alexander Gauland, who openly advocate racist, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic policies. The AfD is linked to rising neo-Nazism in Germany and is now the largest opposition party following the deal between Angela Merkel’s conservatives (CDU) and the Social Democrats. After the September 2017 elections, the AfD became the first far-right party to win seats in the German parliament since 1945, gaining 12.6% of the popular vote.
Koch connected sentiment against the obelisk to a march on Sunday in Berlin, which brought approximately 5,000 AfD supporters to the streets of the German capital. The demonstration was met with 13 counter-protest that many estimated to be about five times bigger, with approximately 25,000 people rallying in opposition to the openly racist and xenophobic AfD marchers. Koch said that the counter-demonstration “was the first time the cultural community gathered in such high numbers in defiance to the new right-wing populism.”
“Since the AfD makes little effort to hide their racist perspectives, it seems understandable why a black African-American making an homage to refugees and their hosts is speaking the exact opposite language of what they [the AfD] want,” Koch said. “It’s important to keep debates about the obelisk free from identity politics and insist on its universal, human message, which some people obviously want to fight against.”