One of the highlights of the 2017 edition of Documenta—the quinquennial exhibition in the city of Kassel, Germany, that is considered one of the world’s most prestigious contemporary art displays—was Olu Oguibe’s Monument to Strangers and Refugees (2017), a 53-foot-tall obelisk erected in the city’s central square. On each side is a quote from the Book of Matthew directed toward refugees and encouraging open borders, translated into Turkish, Arabic, German, and English: “I was a stranger and you took me in.”
The work was widely celebrated during the opening of Documenta in June 2017, and Oguibe was awarded the Arnold Bode Prize, given to him by the city. But after more than a year of negotiating, the city has rejected plans to permanently keep the statue, Hyperallergic reports. The decision comes after it was previously reported that the city would purchase the work but place it elsewhere, ostensibly to keep its current central location at Königsplatz open for future exhibitions. An alternative location was proposed, and while the artist supported this less central location, a deal was never reached.
Money was not an issue—a crowdfunding campaign raised enough money for the city to buy the work at a discounted rate agreed to by Oguibe. But pressure from far-right members of the anti-immigrant party Alternative for Germany (AfD) may have convinced city council members to oppose the refugee-friendly work. Deutsche Welle reported in August that Kassel city council member Thomas Materner, who is an AfD member, called the work “disfiguring,” using a German term that some thought evoked the Nazi concept of “degenerate” art.
The artist did not call out AfD in his statement to Hyperallergic, but said that it was clear the city did not want the work.
“To say that the city leaders tried in so many ways over the course of the past year to avoid acquiring the work would be a gross understatement,” Oguibe wrote.
He explained that the city council initially agreed to move the obelisk from its current location to Holländischer Platz, near the university, but with a caveat that it could only be installed once a planned art center dubbed the Documenta Institute was built. The council, Oguibe said, knew full well such a center would never be completed, and tried unsuccessfully to get the city to move the work immediately.
Even when the mayor offered to move the work immediately to Holländischer Platz, albeit against my wishes and the stated objections of numerous citizens, the city council refused to move the work to Holländischer Platz. Because there was no documenta Institute going to Holländischer Platz. I wrote at least two letters to the city mayor, Mr. Geselle asking questions about this and also, the fact that the deadline to return the public donations for acquiring the work had long expired. To date, Mr. Geselle never answered my questions.
Oguibe and his dealer, Alexander Koch, are arranging the work’s removal.