/ 22 December 2023

The complex art of the kibosh

02 Tldr Still
Too controversial, won’t see: TLDR (2017) actors (top) Tenderlove, Duduzile Dlamini, Regina High, Jenny and Zoe Black, and (above) Gabbi, Emmah, Jowi, Connie and Nosipho ‘Provocative’ Vidima appear in the video installation by Candice Breitz (right), which has summarily been cancelled in Germany. Image stills: Goodman Gallery. Photo: Till Cremer

Candice Breitz is a respected South African-born Jewish artist, public intellectual and academic based in Berlin. An exhibition, which had been planned for three years, was abruptly cancelled last month by a German museum based on allegations made against Breitz in the German press. Charles Leonard spoke to her about what happened.

Please introduce yourself.

My name is Candice Breitz. I grew up in Johannesburg. I’ve been based in Berlin since 2002. I do my best to spend a couple of months back home every year but most of the opportunities that come my way as an artist lie beyond South Africa.

You have had an exhibition cancelled.

The exhibition would have opened at the Saarlandmuseum in the German city of Saarbrücken in April. 

The plan was to exhibit a 13-channel video installation titled TLDR (2017). The work grew out of a series of interviews and workshops with members of Sweat (the Sex Workers Education & Advocacy Taskforce), a community of sex workers and sex work activists who live and work in Cape Town. 

I first got to know several members of Sweat in December 2016, when I joined the community to protest an exhibition titled Our Lady at the Iziko South African National Gallery. 

The exhibition included a work by Zwelethu Mthethwa, an artist who was at the time on trial for having violently murdered Nokuphila Kumalo, a young sex worker. 

TLDR highlights the international struggle of sex workers for basic human rights, for the destigmatisation and decriminalisation of their labour and being. It also reflects critically on how the “good intentions” of white saviours too often block paths to meaningful political transformation.  

Why was the exhibition cancelled? 

That’s a complex question to answer. On 24 November, my studio received a call from the director of the museum, announcing that she would “likely be forced to cancel the exhibition”, which we had been working towards for three years. 

Given the current climate in Germany, I immediately assumed that the cancellation had to do with views that I have expressed in relation to the ongoing carnage in Israel-Palestine. Little did I know, on the day we received that call, that the exhibition had in fact already been axed, prior to any conversation with me. A good month after the cancellation, I’ve yet to receive anything formal in writing from the museum, nor have I been given an opportunity to state my case. I’m having to follow my own trial via accounts in the press.

Have you managed to gain a clearer understanding of the cancellation at this point? 

At an early stage after the cancellation was announced, rumour had it that I had “maybe signed a BDS letter”. In the German context, BDS is deemed to be an anti-Semitic movement. The mere suggestion of proximity to BDS can destroy one’s ability to earn a living. 

In a statement subsequently released to a local newspaper, the museum explained that I was being censured because I “had not sufficiently condemned Hamas”. 

This judgment was arrived at in direct response to several articles in the German press, via which I was at that point being aggressively slandered for having been involved in a Jewish-led protest that took place in Berlin on 10 November. 

While the protest held space for those who were still mourning in Israel, it was also highly critical of the Israeli government’s disproportionate and inhumane bombardment of Gazan civilians. 

That was all it took to cancel the exhibition?

I have, in fact, repeatedly and unequivocally condemned Hamas, in a variety of public contexts, including via my publicly accessible Instagram account. Which is probably why the museum felt it had to double down on the allegations that were being wielded against me. 

Representatives of the museum were soon insisting that the problem was not merely that I had insufficiently condemned Hamas, but that I had not adequately framed the 7 October attacks as a “Zivilisationsbruch” (a rupture in civilisation). 

In the German context, the term “Zivilisationsbruch” is used by scholars as a reference to the Shoah [the Holocaust]. In effect, the museum is now arguing that they can’t show my work because I have not explicitly acknowledged an equivalence between the Holocaust and the 7 October attacks. To demand that such an equivalence be pronounced as a condition for exhibiting my work, is to effectively demand that I relativise the Holocaust.

How do you feel about it?

Need I point out the absurdity of Germans dictating to Jewish people how they should articulate their reactions to the brutal massacre of other Jewish people? 

Should Jewish people have to prove to Germans that they are not supporters of Hamas? Or would it not perhaps make sense to assume — unless there is strong evidence to the contrary — that Jewish people are repulsed and horrified by the massacre of other Jewish people? 

Will Germany soon be asking all Jews who live in Germany to make public statements to confirm they condemn the Holocaust and that they hold no sympathy for the Nazis who killed their ancestors? The degree of self-righteousness is beyond words.

Have you been accused of anti-Semitism?

The implication can hardly be ignored. One is apparently guilty by default, until one declares oneself innocent. It reminds me very much of the post-9/11 climate, in which Arabs, Muslims and Sikhs who did not publicly condemn the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre were automatically suspected of condoning al-Qaeda. 

The German expectation that progressive Jews explicitly condemn Hamas operates according to a similar, even more deeply twisted , logic. 

I am confident that the museum will come to deeply regret its decision over time. Their assessment is mind-numbingly provincial at best, violently inappropriate and gallingly anti-Semitic at worst. 

Surely there are formal procedures that need to be followed before a large exhibition can be cancelled?

In most democratic cultures, those who are deemed guilty are given the chance to speak and defend themselves before they are condemned and deplatformed. 

But the climate in Germany is such at present, that many Germans feel absolutely justified in condemning Jewish positions that are not consistent with their own, in their zeal to confirm their own dedication to anti-anti-Semitic principles. 

Jewish philosopher and author Susan Neiman described this kind of behaviour as “philosemitic McCarthyism” in a recent article in The New York Review of Books. 

Many progressive Jews in this country have come to believe Germany’s increasingly entrenched habit of weaponising false charges of anti-Semitism against intellectuals and cultural workers of various descriptions, in the absence of credible evidence, has little to do with a genuine concern for the safety of Jewish lives, and can best be understood as serving to promote Germany’s image of itself as a forward-looking country that has managed to overcome its own deeply anti-Semitic and genocidal past. 

Is it only progressive Jews who are impacted by ‘philosemitic McCarthyism’?

While progressive Jews are being targeted by weaponised charges of anti-Semitism increasingly frequently, it is other minority communities that are far more vulnerable to Germany’s philosemitic McCarthyism. There are endless examples of Muslims and/or Arabs — and of course, most egregiously, of Palestinians — who have had to face similar allegations, mostly with zero evidence to back them up. 

Although the vast majority of antisemitic incidents in Germany are in fact perpetrated by white Germans (who are more likely than not to carry Nazi ancestry), instrumentalised accusations of anti-Semitism have become a convenient weapon via which to bludgeon a wide range of minorities. Anybody who is black or brown or Middle Eastern or Global Southern is vulnerable.

Why is it so hard to speak about Israel in Germany?

It’s alarmingly common, in Germany, for people to conflate “the Jewish people” with “the state of Israel”. As such, legitimate criticism directed against the Israeli government is often hastily condemned as anti-Semitic. Germany’s understanding of itself as a nation is still to a large degree determined by seeking to work through and make amends for the Holocaust, which remains necessary work. 

Given that Jews are still very much cast in the role of eternal victims in the German imaginary, the German mainstream has an understandable tendency to be particularly vigilant around anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, these good intentions have over time solidified into dogmatic behaviour. 

As with all manifestations of McCarthyism, the rabid sidelining, stigmatising and denunciation of individuals whose worldviews are inconvenient or uncomfortable in the German context is driven by the deep fear that one might be outed as an anti-Semite oneself.