The city of Kassel has removed the Nigerian-born American artist Olu Oguibe’s Documenta 14 artwork, Monument to Strangers and Refugees.
The decision to take down the 16m-high obelisk follows a majority vote by the Kassel city council on 24 September, which sought to indefinitely remove the artwork from Königsplatz, a busy pedestrianised area of the city centre.
Conceived by the artist as a “call to action” to highlight the ongoing refugee crisis, the obelisk bears the words, inscribed in gold: “I was a stranger and you took me in.” Written in German, English, Arabic, and Turkish, the line is a verse from Matthew 25:35.
Two cranes were used to dismantle the work in the early hours of last Wednesday (3 October 2018) on what in Germany is Unity Day, a national holiday celebrating the country’s reunification after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The initial loan agreement between the artist and the city came to an end on 30 September and the removal is the culmination of an ongoing dispute between the city and Oguibe.
The artwork has also become a focal point for right-wing anger, with one local councillor and member of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party describing the obelisk as “ideologically polarizing, deformed art”.
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In January 2018, it was reported by the Art Newspaper that officials from Kassel had begun a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds to purchase the work and keep it in Königsplatz.
Kassel’s chief culture official, Susanne Völker, was reported as saying that the goal was to raise €600,000 – the amount Oguibe had requested for the purchase of the work.
After three months only €126,000 had been raised but Oguibe nevertheless agreed to sell the work to the city at the lower rate – as long as it remained in Königsplatz.
However, since then there has been a disagreement between the artist and the council over a plan to relocate the work to Holländischer Platz, the designated site for a yet to be built Documenta Institute.
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On this grey Day of Unity, the national holiday commemorating the anniversary of German reunification, an iconic symbol of unity and solidarity is gone. In the early morning hours Olu Oguibe’s documenta Obelisk, the monument for strangers and refugees, was silently dismantled by the city of Kassel. Many have stood up for this work and its humanist message, yet local politics decided that there is no place in the centre of society for aspirations to bring people together instead of separating them. Germany has seen brighter moments than this October 3rd. #oluoguibe #kassel
In a statement sent to Hyperallergic, Oguibe said the city had failed to negotiate in good faith: “Once I indicated my willingness to accept the funds raised, the city leaders instantly moved the goal posts and threw in a new obstacle.
“Their stated problem was no longer the asking prices or money, for that matter, but the very location of the work. They demanded that it was no longer enough for me to accept the amount raised through the public fundraising, but that the work must be removed from their central square, no matter what.”
On the day of the work’s removal, Oguibe’s Berlin-based gallery KOW stated on Instagram: “Many have stood up for this work and its humanist message, yet local politics decided that there is no place in the centre of society for aspirations to bring people together instead of separating them.”
Olu Oguibe, Das Fremdlinge und Flüchtlinge Monument (Monument for strangers and refugees), 2017, concrete, Königsplatz, Kassel, Documenta 14. Photo: Michael Nast