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Nr. 00265- 9th Jan. 2024 – Weekly Newspaper devoted to Science & Technology in Africa ** Pour la promotion de l'esprit scientifique en Afrique

German university professors protest the mutilation of intellectuel freedom

The American Library Association defines intellectual freedom as “ the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction”.  The same source mentions that intellectual freedom “provides for free access to all expressions of ideas through which any and all sides of a question, cause or movement may be explored”. In fact, intellectual Freedom is one of the key bases of our democratic system. Therefore, we must be scared at anytime political elites start using strategies or futile arguments to prevent citizens from having access to different opinions surrounding an intellectual creation.

Africa & Science hereby publish the petition of three German university professors against the attitude of their political elites towards an art creation devoted to the denunciation of the former Indonesian political regime.

Open letter

Can the Documenta still be saved?

to the documenta 15 Supervisory Board,

to the German government & to the media

* * * * * * * *

By Werner Ruf, Ingo Wandelt & Rainer Werning

We, the signatories of this Open Letter, are concerned that this could be the last time that the internationally renowned art exhibition documenta takes place in its customary form. The Indonesian art collective Ruangrupa that curated this year’s documenta, set itself the ambitious goal of finally giving a voice to « Global South » of the planet. Their aim had been to offer a look through a Southern lens at a post-colonial world previously characterised by imperialism, colonialism, racism and other forms of oppression and exploitation. « Lumbung« , the rice barn as a haven of a communally managed and shared resources, could have served as the guiding idea for lively intercultural communications.

The laudable idea of letting people from the former Third World speak for themselves obviously carries the « risk » that facts that pass unheeded in our own (Western) historiography and that have been persistently obscured and suppressed, suddenly become relevant. Who has the authority to interpret what happened and is happening « down there »? If « people from the South » are given this power, might « our » view of the world, maintained over many centuries, not be called into question, along with the claim to hegemony that accompanies it?

The Indonesian artists’ collective Taring Padi presented a mural consisting of hundreds of pictures in the fashion of a hidden-picture book that had been produced two decades ago. Since then, it has been shown in many places without triggering any protests. Two of the images on the mural served as a pretext to instrumentalise documenta 15 politically, rashly accusing it of being « anti-Semitic ». This resulted in the wholesale condemnation of the exhibition and even in calls for its immediate cancellation. Even high-ranking German politicians perceived a threat to the existence of the State of Israel in the images, while others consciously even avoided visiting Kassel.

The artists’ collective Taring Padi, for its part, hastened to explain that “the banner installation People’s Justice (2002) is part of a campaign against the militarism and violence we experienced during the military dictatorship of Suharto for 32 years in Indonesia, and its legacy as it exists up through the present day. Therefore, the depiction of military figures in the banner expresses our experiences. As such, all figures depicted in the banner reference commonly-known symbols within the Indonesian political context, for example corrupt bureaucracy, military generals and their soldiers, which are symbolized by pigs, dogs and rats to criticize an exploitative capitalist system and military violence (…). »

Thus, the figure with a pig’s face wearing a helmet marked MOSSAD is only one of several similar helmeted figures bearing names such as as KGB, CIA, INTEL, and 007, which stand collectively for international intelligence agencies, that served to bolster up the repressive regime of General Suharto (1965-1998). The German weekly DIE ZEIT wrote about his bloody anti-communist campaign on 3 November 1967:

« The avenging army did not hesitate to seize the unique opportunity to destroy its only rival. With official approval, the army, militant Muslim youth groups and the PNI (Partai Nasional Indonesia) carried out what was probably the biggest massacre since Hitler’s days. It amounted to a pogrom of the supporters of the Indonesian Communist Party, PKI (the third largest communist party in the world at the time – the authors) and ultimately got out of control, deteriorating into a national killing spree in which private feuds and general social conflicts were settled under the convenient guise of anti-communism. »

The second controversial figure depicts a face with sharks’ teeth, a capitalist’s cigar in his mouth and wearing a hat on which the SS insignia can be seen. The contours of side curls can also be made out. Does this stand for the « odious, rapacious Jew » or a shrewd broker as a symbol of finance capital that sells off the wealth and natural resources of the countries of the « Third World » on the stock exchange? The SS insignia on the hat probably allude to the inhumanity and brutality of the colonial system that is being criticised. Is it « the Jew » being attacked here or is it the international finance system? The question of the interpretation tends more towards the perception of the Western, or more precisely German, observer rather than being a clear statement about « Judaism ».

This is also born out by the fact that the figure in question is wearing European clothes. In this sense, even the Israeli sociologist Moshe Zuckermann speaks of a « purely German éclat ». In any case, neither of the images in question constitute an anti-Semitic work, but are intended to be strictly anti-Suhartoist. This shows that the Western eye is clearly completely oblivious to the basic purpose of the banner.

The SS figure is shown in close proximity to a number of zombie-like creatures, also bearing fangs. Given the overall context, there are strong indications that this figure is definitely intended to represent an SS figure and not at all to vilify « the Jew » as a particular incarnation of evil. In fact Suharto’s crony and biographer was none other than the hardened Nazi, SS-Obersturmbannführer and war criminal Rudolf Oebsger-Röder. Under the name O. G. Roeder, this man was responsible for branding an image of Suharto both at home and abroad as the ever « smiling general ». After World War II, Röder worked full-time for the Gehlen Organisation (hence the O.G. in front of the name), the forerunner of the German Federal Intelligence Service (BND), among others. Later he worked in Jakarta, both for the BND and as a correspondent for the Süddeutsche Zeitung and the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

« We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are, » the writer Anaïs Nin once wrote. « We » have mixed « here » a dangerous cocktail of prejudice, hate-filled rejection, deeply reactionary responses, political opportunism and vandalism. This has led to foreign guests and even curators and artists at this year’s documenta being subjected to physical threats. All this has not only caused considerable damage to this particular international culture & art exhibition; loud calls are even being made for curtailing artistic freedom and censorship – and this in the summer of 2022!

On the occasion of the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the Federal Republic of Germany and the Republic of Indonesia, it is time that, at least in political Berlin, the archives are opened with a view to the manifold (West) German support of the Suharto terror regime and in the sense of always invoked transparency and « value-based foreign policy ».

We call on the Supervisory Board of documenta 15 to immediately do everything in its power to ensure that for the rest of the documenta 15 a culture of respect and dialogue worthy of the name will prevail, with appropriate public forums enabling a lively exchange of ideas. We also expect that should an advisory board be established in connection with the documenta 15 controversy it must include at least one Southeast Asian scholar.

Edermünde/Wuppertal/Königsdorf on 27 July 2022

Prof. Dr. Werner Ruf, emeritus political scientist & peace researcher specialising in international relations

Dr. Ingo Wandelt, ethnologist & Indonesia expert

Dr. Rainer Werning, social scientist & publicist specialising in Southeast and East Asian affairs

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