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 of Public Art Munich, an arts festival running until July 27th. She based this year’s concept on three individual points in Munich’s history. Her most recent choice? A day in 2015 when Munich residents clapped and cheered as asylum seekers arrived in their city.
“We want art to find a way to mediate issues of our time,” she tells me over the phone. “At the moment in German politics, the refugee issue can decide the life or death of government.”
“If art finds a meaningful way to be part of this debate, and not lead to extreme polarisation, then it can add nuance to the discussion.”
Since artist Manaf Halbouni moved from Damascus to Dresden 11 years ago, he has noticed a seismic change in German society—especially since the refugee crisis.
He wanted to create a work that would draw comparisons between the WWII bombing in Dresden and the current fighting in Syria. “I wanted people to have a bit of respect towards this refugee movement and why it is happening,” he says.
When Halbouni unveiled his re-creation of Aleppo’s sniper barriers in Dresden’s city centre in early 2017, the installation became a flashpoint for anger. The three buses, up-turned vertically, cast a long shadow in Dresden’s Neumarkt square—a politically charged location where anti-immigrant protest group PEGIDA held demonstrations every week.
The buses were seen as a provocation; an attempt to block the rallies. On its opening, the mayor’s speech was drowned out by angry protestors and in the first two days, Halbouni received 400 pieces of hate mail.
In the streets, right-wing art is largely invisible, deprived of government funding. There are only scrawls of support for the AFD in underpasses, swastikas were quickly drawn on backstreets and the words “Turkish out!” written across park benches.
“Maybe you don’t find at the moment a lot of right-wing sculpture, but you do find a lot of right-wing artworks,” says artist Rainer Opolka, pointing to another public space—the internet.
“When you look in social media, there are hundreds of thousands of Photoshop-made artworks.”
Opolka wouldn’t describe himself as a left-wing artist. Instead, he says he is “realistic.”
His grip on reality was proved in 2016, when he exhibited a bronze pack of wolves outside Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof station. Vicious, snarling and giant, they looked down on commuters as they streamed towards work. This was Opolka’s warning that far-right wolves were returning to Germany.
A premonition, perhaps. One year and one month after the wolves were installed, the far-right AfD party were elected to Germany’s parliament—the first time a far-right party sat in the Bundestag since WWII.
While public art in Germany represents only the people in support of refugees, Warsza doesn’t believe that is a problem.
“There needs to be pluralism in art but we don’t need a right-wing art,” says the curator. “We might need to question completely left-wing art but good art is too complex to be right-wing in my opinion.”
Instead, German public art works in reaction to its politics. As Merkel comes under increasing pressure from conservative elements in her party to curb irregular migration and deportations to Afghanistan continues, the country’s public artists continue to spread the message: refugees are welcome.