When Kassel authorities suggested moving Olu Oguibe's obelisk to a less high-profile location, the artist accused them of caving to far-right pressure. And his work isn't the only controversial oneby Morgan Meaker / July 2, 2018 / Leave a comment
When the German city of Kassel erected a 54ft monument “for refugees and strangers,” the obelisk was more than an artwork; it was a political statement. Since last spring, the dark pillar has loomed over locals like the issue of immigration has towered over German politics—leaving Europe’s most prosperous country divided.
The work signals that however shaky her position looks now, parts of Germany, at least, still stand by Chancellor’s Merkel’s 2015 decision to open the country’s borders to Syrian refugees.
The monument was created by Olu Oguibe and unveiled for Kassel’s 14th Documenta art festival. Across its harsh, stone face, the US-based artist has etched a bible verse, written in soft, gold letters. In English, German, Turkish and Arabic, it reads: “I was a stranger and you took me in.”
But one year after its installation, the monument has become entangled in an argument that echoed current divisions in German society. The local AFD councilman branded the work “disfigured” and “ideologically polarizing.” When Kassel authorities suggested moving the work to a less high-profile location, the artist protested, accusing the city of caving to right-wing pressure.
Local authorities say their decision has nothing to do with the AfD; the square must be kept clear for future Documentas. But in the flare-up of tensions, the city has been divided.
For the past three years, Germany’s struggle between far-right groups and its refugee “welcome culture” has been reflected in its public art, with the Kassel row only the latest instalment.
Germany’s artists—a community that largely welcomes refugees—have taken their politics into the streets. Statues and installations have been installed across the country in support of Angela Merkel’s “Wir Schaffen Das” (“we can do it”) attitude to migration.
But public reaction often reflects the debate’s other side, including the 13 per cent who last year voted for the far-right AfD party. Artists report receiving hate mail and threats. Work is vandalised or publicly criticised by conservative politicians.
Whereas art galleries preach to the converted; art in public spaces reaches a much wider audience, hijacking ordinary people’s lives’.
For curator Joanna Warsza, this is one of public art’s great advantages. “You have the attention of so many people. People who would not ordinarily go to the museum,” she says.
Warzsa is the curator…