The Documenta, Indonesia, and the Problem of Closed Universes

The dismantled Taring Padi exhibition piece at Dokumenta. Image courtesy of Baummapper.
In June 2022, the international art exhibition, Documenta, opened to visitors in Kassel, Germany, only to be quickly mired in controversy over one of the paintings on display: “People’s Justice” by the Indonesian art collective Taring Padi. Featuring what many observers considered to be an antisemitic depiction of an orthodox Jew, “People’s Justice” was quickly covered up and, eventually, removed from the exhibition. Almost immediately, scholars from around the world began weighing in on the Documenta controversy. Some of these responses are collected here via our “Documenta” series. The New Fascism Syllabus‘ “Documenta” series was coordinated and edited by Jennifer Evans and Brian J Griffith.

The Taring Padi art collective was formed in 1998 after the fall of the Suharto dictatorship. Explicitly radical, it is dedicated to antimilitarism, anti-neoliberalism, to workers’, peasants’, and women’s movements, and to environmentalism. It drew its largest painting, “People’s Justice” that year to address the dictatorship. The painting depicts a popular tribunal with the judges at the top and the enemies of the people on the left. They include cartoonish figures representing western powers that supported Suharto’s regime. “People’s Justice” has been on display at international art festivals for twenty years, beginning in Adelaide, South Australia, in 2002. The documenta fifteen curators chose the painting for a prominent place at the exhibition to confront visitors with the themes of repairing the injuries of (neo)colonialism and capitalism. Until then, no-one appears to have noticed the antisemitic figure of a caricatured orthodox Jew among the many other figures on the crowded canvas. Understandably, the picture prompted outrage in Germany, was soon covered, and then removed.

If the painting and its location at the documenta was intended to indict westerners for supporting the Suharto dictatorship, it has rebounded on the artists, the ruangrupa Indonesian art collective curating the documenta, the documenta leadership, and the local, regional, and national politicians responsible for culture. Now many journalists and other politicians, ranging from the CDU/CSU to the AfD, are taking the opportunity to intensify their campaign against a newly discovered field of postcolonialism, although Taring Padi understands themselves as far-leftist artist-activists rather than as part of a global postcolonial movement. The critics are also using the painting to attack the Palestinian artists at the documenta as antisemitic and to target the little artistic independence that German cultural institutions enjoy. There is even talk of cleansing the German cultural sector of antisemitism, which for critics extends to sympathy for Palestinian rights.


Indonesian Colonial History

No-one thinks the image in the painting is defensible, including now even Taring Padi itself, which issued an apology and disavowed antisemitic intentions. There is also another figure in the painting that is thought to be antisemitic: a uniformed pig representing the state of Israel, indicated by “Mossad” on its helmet. It appears with other, virtually identical figures of other national secret services, including the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO is written on the helmet). Writing as an Australian, I can well understand why “our” spy agency appears in the picture (although the image should list the Australian Security Intelligence Service [ASIS], because it covers international security). Like Israel and the Federal Republic of Germany, Australia was a longtime supporter of the murderous Suharto “new order” that began with the genocidal “cleansing” of over 500,000 Indonesian communists in 1965-1966, and that ruled by brutal military suppression, including of Islamists, until 1998. This period also included what some called the genocidal occupation of East Timor from 1975 to 1999. General antipathy to the West, including Mossad, from the “disappointment, frustration, and rage of politicised art students,” as Taring Padi explained the context of the painting, is hardly surprising. But why did Taring Padi link Mossad with the antisemitic caricature of the orthodox Jew? Despite giving several interviews, we still don’t know the answer to this question, and unfortunately, the member of the collective who painted it is no longer alive.

Historical context offers clues. Antisemitism is no stranger to Indonesian culture. Its roots go back at least 100 years. Fantastical beliefs about Jews can be traced to the 1920s when the few Jews in the Dutch East Indies – who hailed from the Netherlands, eastern Europe, Armenia, Iraq and China  – engaged in trade, met in Masonic lodges, and founded a Zionist association in 1927, according to the late University of California Berkeley scholar Jeffrey Hadler. Writing in 2004, he distinguished between popular “anti-Israelism” in Indonesia at the time, and what he calls “real antisemitism,” which was imported from Europe via the Dutch Nazi movement and Nazified local Germans. Before them, Dutch colonial officials had scapegoated Chinese merchants as behaving “like Jews,” thus transplanting the antisemitic seed.

Patterns of decolonization further “othered” Jews in various ways, marking them as both white yet also linked to the larger outsider group, the Chinese. Because many Jews were not citizens of enemy countries, they were not rounded up after the Japanese conquered the Dutch East Indies in 1942. When the Gestapo asked who had been imprisoned, they were told “all enemy nationals except the two white races, Jews and Armenians.” They compelled the Japanese to imprison Jews from neutral countries. Then the British and defeated Japanese forces guarded them in the prisons in the ensuing struggle with Indonesian nationalist forces, thereby placing Jews on the anti-independence side in the anti-colonial imagination. Dutch Jewish soldiers joined the Dutch “police actions” against the independence struggle while supporting the Zionist one in Palestine. Like (other) Europeans, most Jews left the future Indonesia, conforming to the general pattern of Jews leaving decolonizing societies for the colonial metropole where they had citizenship, for other western countries, or for the newly founded state of Israel. The few Dutch Jews who remained after Indonesian independence in 1949 often chose to retain Dutch citizenship, thereby underlining the impression that Jews were white Europeans affiliated with the former colonial power. Only Sukarno’s nationalizing policies forced a choice for local citizenship after 1957. By then, only 30 families could be counted.



This tiny community was a convenient scapegoat to channel anti-Chinese racism. Chinese can stand in as examples of a ubiquitous Jewish threat in two ways: as embodying “Jewish” capitalist traits and acting as agents of “the Jews.” To a great extent, antisemitism in Indonesia is an abstraction mediated by the Chinese. Actual violence is thus directed against the Chinese. In the wake of the Asian financial crisis in 1998, 1,000 Chinese were killed in rioting. Anti-Chinese racism persists to this day. Beforehand, during the independence struggle in the second half of the 1940s, nationalists massacred Chinese and Indonesian Eurasians for perceived disloyalty to the independence cause.

Jews and Israelis are also regularly conflated. In an interview in an Islamic magazine soon after his fall in 1998, Suharto blamed his fate on an international Zionist conspiracy. His Malaysian counterpart, prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, by contrast, attributed it to Jews as “sinister forces.” Suharto likewise invoked sinister forces in alleging a Zionist plot to provoke the civil unrest caused by the 1998 Asian financial crisis. When asked whether a conspiracy accounted for his downfall, Suharto replied:

“It was a Zionist conspiracy. The Indonesian government was careless in its regard of the systematic and tactical machinations of the Zionists. …The Zionists … were concerned that Indonesia would become a centre for the rise of Islam. Indonesia’s growth rate was therefore attacked as the economic and monetary crisis has shown. There are now a number of Indonesian politicians who refuse to acknowledge their own history and instead choose to look towards the West.”

In this rendering, Suharto was identifying Israel on the side of the colonial powers, meaning the West, as enemies of Indonesians. Ironically, Israel had been supporting his regime, as Joseph Croitoru explains. Suharto was hoping to win public support by pandering to such beliefs, which were spread since the late 1980s by Islamist publications opposed to his regime. Conspiracy thinking has grown since the 1980s. Even Rotary, Marxists, Coca Cola, and Rupert Murdoch are seen by many Indonesians as parts of global conspiracies, according to the University of Sydney Indonesia expert, Adrian Vickers.


Anticolonialism and Antisemitism

Despite Taring Padi’s intense antipathy to Suharto, the artist responsible for the figure utilized the same antisemitic imagery in an anti-colonial, anti-Western, and anti-capitalist spirit. The anti-colonial spirit is elemental to Indonesian national identity. Few realise that the preamble of the Indonesian constitution, written during the bitter independence struggle with the Dutch after the Japanese occupation, commences with the statement that “all colonialism must be abolished in this world as it is not in conformity with humanity and justice.” It is no accident that the country’s first president, Sukarno, hosted the famous meeting of Asian and African leaders, representing 54% of the world’s population, in Bandung in 1955. He opened proceedings with a stirring speech extolling a post-colonial future: “Let us remember that the stature of all mankind is diminished so long as nations or parts of nations are still unfree. Let us remember that the highest purpose of man is the liberation of man from his bonds of fear, his bonds of human degradation, his bonds of poverty – the liberation of man from the physical, spiritual and intellectual bonds which have for too long stunted the development of humanity’s majority.” Taring Padi’s “People’s Justice” and many of their other works express this sentiment. Unfortunately, in doing so they utilized a longstanding abstract trope of “the Jew” as the foreign exploiter of the people and as fomenter of wars: in short, as an international menace. This was not part of the original Indonesian liberation struggle because the enemy was all too concrete: the Dutch armed forces.  In their detailed discussion of Taring Padi and Indonesian art, the Australia-based art historians Wulan Dirgantoro and Elly Kent rightly ask the collective tough questions about this artistic choice and political imagination: “Was there any real comprehension of the symbology or was it uncritically borrowed from the mass of imagery circulating in a public discourse that conflated anti-Semitism with anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism?”

Speaking about the documenta scandal at the federal parliamentary Committee for Culture and Media, on 6 July 2022, Ade Darmawan from Ruangupa gave an evasive answer to the origin of the image. “The antisemitic artistic tropes in the picture were brought by the Dutch colonial masters already in the eighteenth century, and was there transferred above all onto the Chinese minority population. Indonesian artistic tropes are formed by totally different historical experiences than in Germany.” It may well be that the “Indonesian imagery is influenced by other historical experiences” than those in Germany, but the fact remains that it conflates Israelis and Jews, and posits them as actors in a global campaign against Indonesians along with other westerners.


Palestinian Critique

True, it is confusing for people to distinguish between Jews and the state of Israel because the latter’s flag is the Jewish religious symbol that claims to represent all Jews. World leaders like US President Biden also say that Israel is the “ultimate guarantee and guarantor of the Jewish people, not only in Israel but the entire world,” reflecting the Israeli state self-representation. Pro-Israel German journalists do the same: “Israeli artists were not invited to the subsided large events … apparently the art scene has a problem with the Jews.” Taring Padi is thus reflecting a widespread practice in conflating Jews and Israel. The most damning feature of the antisemitic caricature in the “People’s Justice” is that it includes the SS symbol which suggests that Jews are also Nazis, thereby placing “the Jews” and Nazis in one category with other enemies of the people. This is the crudest anti-imperialism as well as a racist stereotype. Jeffrey Hadler’s distinction between anti-Israelism and real antisemitism breaks down here.

However, Hadler’s distinction applies with the art of the Palestinian artists at the documenta. Mohammed Al Hawajri from Gaza is displaying a series of paintings called “Guernica Gaza” that depict Israeli armed forces and Palestinian civilians by utilizing motifs from famous European art works. They do not invoke Jewish religious symbols, world Jewish conspiracies, or images of stereotypically “Jewish” figures, and of course the IDF has non-Jewish Druze and Bedouin soldiers. The art does not attack, let alone conceptualize, Jewish “being,” only Israeli military agency. Where the “Jewish” figure in “People’s Justice” represents an abstraction, the Israelis in the “Guernica Gaza” series represent the militarized state that occupies Palestinian land, from which it is slowly evicting them, and that bombs Palestinians. Rather than deploying paranoid symbols, simplifications, and stereotypes about Jews, the series invokes real interactions between Israelis and Palestinians. There is no hatred of Jews (Judenhass) in these pictures.

Despite efforts to conflate antisemitism and anti-Zionism, then, “Guernica Gaza” is an example of Hadler’s anti-Israelism, not a form of antisemitism. Even the harshest critics admit this distinction because they consistently repeat it in claiming that the current documenta is a site of antisemitic and anti-Israeli art. They condemn both as “anti-Israel agitprop” and imply that Palestinian artists are forbidden from expressing the plight of Palestinian civilians if it makes them feel uncomfortable. Given their life experiences, it is hardly surprising that Palestinian artists create uncomfortable art. It depicts a disastrous reality.


The Problem of “Closed Universes”

Any encounter between east and west, north and south, like at the documenta, is fraught with risk because of mutual unintelligibility: not only about symbols, but about global justice, the rights and wrongs of colonial rule, and Western support for dictatorships like Suharto’s, and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. So far, we are witnessing unintelligibility. Appeals from historians like Jürgen Zimmerer at the beginning of the debate about “People’s Justice“ und its antisemitic imagery to begin a dialogue with the Global South about why western taboos about certain antisemitic iconography are not shared in other parts of the world were ignored. Apart from an interview with the Palestinian artist Yazan Khalili in the Berliner Zeitung and article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (which otherwise campaigns against the documenta), I have not seen interest in the lifeworld of the Palestinian artists at the documenta. Instead of talking about their artwork and the grim human reality it depicts, as well as pondering German complicity in creating the Palestinian refugee problem, there are the usual cries of taboo breeches. By contrast, the use of famous European art motifs, which they regard as “universal,” in “Guernica Gaza” indicates that the artist knows how to unsettle German audiences – as art is supposed to.

Such unsettling opens up opportunities for critical self-reflection. As Michael Rothberg, Monique Ligtenberg and Bernhard C. Schär demonstrate in their discussions of “People’s Justice,” the art of catastrophe is the product of a catastrophic history that implicates German colonialism, because Nazi imagery was transported to the Dutch East Indies by German colonial personnel. Such images became indigenized and repurposed in the anti-colonial and later the democratic struggle in which neither the Federal Republic of German nor Australia stood on the right side. If some radical Indonesian artists were attracted to “a conspiratorial reading of history” (Achilles Mbembe), it is because they internalized and inverted the rigid binaries that structured the political field in which they, the victims of Suharto’s oppression, operated. As Achilles Mbembe theorizes in Critique of Black Reason, such liberation dramas are populated by the stock characters of “the executioner (enemy) and his victim (the innocent)”: the former incarnate “the absolute form of cruelty,” while the latter are “full of virtue … incapable of violence, terror or corruption.”

Mbembe is critical of this simplistic reaction to oppression: “In this closed universe, where ‘making history’ becomes nothing more than flushing out one’s enemies or destroying them, any form of dissent is seen as extremism.“ Although no exterminatory intention can be discerned in “People’s Justice,” its deployment of stereotypical figures, especially of “the Jew,” is inconsistent with the artists’ anti-racist political message, as they now realise. But Western states are complicit in Taring Padi’s tribunal view of world politics because they supported Suharto’s military regime. Considered in this way, the history embedded in “People’s Justice” can help move all parties beyond their closed universes: beyond the destructive dialectic of accusation and defensiveness to one in which traumatic histories and the distorted mirrors they produce are relegated to the past so that a future based on human rights and solidarity can be imagined.

Ideally, then, the picture should not be an occasion for purging. Consistent with abjuring of historical responsibility in Germany, however, we see precisely that: a tribunal politics that adopts the conspiracy theories of Taring Padi, now directed at anyone who might be associated with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, the non-violent campaign that Palestinian civil society has developed to advocate for equal rights in their homeland.


For an Open Dialogue

A catastrophic twentieth century has taught Germans to resist closed universes. They are rightly vigilant against antisemitic representations and suspicious of the politics of abstractions like “the people,” especially of rhetoric about the tribunals of “people’s justice.” Both German dictatorships did so in different ways to enact cleansings and purgings with terrible human cost. Germans instinctively understand that such language is inconsistent with liberal values of pluralism, toleration, and the rule of law. The strength of the German rule of law is evident when the Bonn Labour Court declared the firing of a Palestinian journalist as illegal. Her firing had occurred as part of a general purge of Arab journalists at Deutsche Welle that conformed to a disturbing pattern of German cultural institutions sacking or disinviting Palestinian journalists, activists, and academics.

It is important to distinguish between a totally unacceptable antisemitism and legitimate critique of Israel. This difference is very important, because it concerns artistic freedom regarding differing political positions. In the one, there is no chance to see things from other perspectives. In the other, it must be possible to see a complex issue from another perspective, or from the perspective of another: “to grasp the pain of others,” as Charlotte Wiedemann aptly puts it.

A dialogue about global justice is underway in Germany. Museums are returning illegitimately obtained artefacts. However incipient and halting, this dialogue will be throttled if authorities enforce a tribunalised “self-cleansing process” and “cleaning”-actions in the cultural sector. In May 2022, Russian president Putin spoke about a “self-cleansing of society” in the war with Ukraine and the West. As Western countries rightly criticized such language, it is an irony that the efforts to quash “postcolonialism” by demonizing it as antisemitic increasingly resemble the object that it is fantasized to be: as Manichean and illiberal. Universes are being closed rather than opened. Instead of self-cleansing we need self-enlightenment. That is more complex, as one has to learn something. The picture, “People’s Justice,” was displayed, partially covered, and then removed: now is the time to properly examine the history that came into view in Kassel.


Note: I have amended the text after receiving a message from Taring Padi on 30 June 2022 about its use of the swastika in the woodcut print poster entitled “Berikan Cinta Pada Sesama” (Give Love to All) produced in 1999 as part of a poster series campaign against religious intolerance and violence that was rampant in Indonesia following the fall of Suharto in 1998. They write: “The five religious symbols in the poster are commonly known in Indonesia. They are (l-r):  Borobudur stupa (Buddha), Star David (Judaism), Swastika (Hindu), Cross (Christian), Star and Crescent (Islam).  Therefore, the swastika symbol in the poster refers to Hindu religion and not to Nazi as mentioned in the article.” I am grateful for the instruction and happy to remove reference to “Berikan Cinta Pada Sesama.”


A. Dirk Moses is Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of Political Science at the City College of New York

About A. Dirk Moses 3 Articles
Anthony Dirk Moses is an Australian scholar who researches various aspects of genocide. In 2022 he became the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of Political Science at the City College of New York, after having been the Frank Porter Graham Distinguished Professor of Global Human Rights History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

1 Comment

  1. Excellent article. The role of the Artist remains huge, regardless of their nationality or political affiliation. We must condemn the censorship of Art as a crime against humanity, for humanity’s sake or what is left of it.

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