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Issue 219

The Curious Case of Olu Oguibe’s Monument for Strangers and Refugees

From its secret removal to its celebrated resurrection, Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung explores the lives and afterlives of the Kassel statue controversy

BY Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung in EU Reviews , Thematic Essays | 22 MAR 21

Exposing the Question the Answer Hides

It was what we call, in German, a ‘Nacht und Nebel Aktion’. The concept, which translates literally as a ‘night and fog action’, signifies a secretly planned act that is quickly carried out at night without prior warning. In Kassel, on 3 October 2018, German reunification day, government contractors arrived like the proverbial thieves in the night to dismantle and remove a monument and art work that had been commissioned by documenta 14 from the artist Olu Oguibe. The sculpture carries the enigmatic title Das Fremdlinge und Flüchtlinge Monument (Monument for Strangers and Refugees, 2017) and bears – in Germany’s four predominant languages: Turkish, Arabic, English and German – the biblical verse (Matthew 25:35): ‘I was a stranger and you took me in.’ Hardly has an art piece in recent history solicited so much controversy, leaving no one lukewarm. Oguibe’s work will occupy artists and scholars for several generations to come and I hope one day to afford myself more time and space than frieze can grant to write about it.

When, in 2014, Adam Szymczyk invited me to join his documenta 14 team as curator-at-large, I knew immediately that one of the artists I would invite was Oguibe – an artist, scholar, curator and poet I had known from afar and whose seminal works in all these domains had greatly guided me towards becoming a curator.

Olu Oguibe, Monument for Strangers and Refugees, 2017, installation view, documenta 14, Kassel. Courtesy: documenta, Kassel; photograph: Michael Nast 

The invitation to Oguibe lead to two pieces that can only be described as monumental and timely: the Biafra Time Capsule (2017), presented at the EMST National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens to commemorate the Biafran War (1967–70), and the Monument for Strangers and Refugees, which manifested itself majestically as an obelisk on Kassel’s Königsplatz. The works were conceived during what was derogatorily referred to by many as ‘the refugee crisis’ in of 2014/15 – a critical period in German history in particular and European history in general, when hundreds of thousands of humans fled wars, poverty and other atrocities daring to cross the Mediterranean Sea and walk through Southeastern Europe to countries like Germany. While some refugees were warmly welcomed initially, the tide soon changed and migrants faced hostilities as national borders were shut and Europe became a fortress again. When German chancellor Angela Merkel famously said ‘wir schaffen das’ (we can manage this) in 2015, as way of motivating her citizens to stay strong during this humanitarian crisis, violence against migrants in the country skyrocketed – not only at the fringes of extreme right-wing parties, but also institutionally. It was in such friable times that Oguibe produced his obelisk.

The gold-plated inscription – ‘I was a stranger and you took me in’ – can be understood from multiple perspectives. Foremostly, as an expression of gratitude for hospitality and care, in instances where that was the case. But the use of a biblical phrase in this context could also be seen as an affront by those who never wanted to be hospitable in the first place and expressed hostility instead. It could also be perceived as rubbing salt into the wounds of a society that claims to be founded on Christian and democratic values. As if each letter, each word, served to remind the reader of the hypocrisy of nationhood, religion, democracy and other values of Germany’s so-called ‘Leitkultur’ (guiding culture).

Olu Oguibe in front of Monument to Strangers and Refugees, 2017, Kassel. Courtesy: AFP/Getty Images; photograph: John MacDougall

For the 100 days of documenta 14 and afterwards until its infamous tearing down, the obelisk became a pilgrimage site for pro-migration and pro-democracy activists, as much as it became a meeting point and selfie-backdrop for the large Turkish, Eritrean, Syrian and other migrant communities in Kassel. However, the monument was also used by right-wing extremist groups as a metaphorical screen on which to project their hate. This was most famously done by Germany’s right-wing party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), whose principal political agenda is anti-immigrant and whose foundation is racist, antisemitic and revisionist towards Germany’s Holocaust history. In a meeting of Kassel’s cultural committee, an AfD city councillor said the obelisk was ‘ideologically polarizing distorted art’ (entstellte Kunst)reminiscent of the Nazis’ use of the term ‘degenerate’ to describe modern art (entartete Kunst). Indeed, this makes the ‘Nacht und Nebel Aktion’ by no means farfetched, since the expression goes back to Adolf Hitler’s December 1941 decree to the Wehrmacht High Command that led to the sudden transfer of resistance fighters in occupied territories of France, Belgium and the Netherlands to the German Reich, who were then sent to concentration camps or executed. During the Nuremberg trials of 1945–46, this command was dubbed the ‘Nacht und Nebel Decree’.    

Olu Oguibe’s Monument to Strangers and Refugees (2017) was dismantled early on 3 October  following orders by the city of Kassel. Courtesy and photograph: Regina Oesterling

What provoked so much tension, so many emotions – varying from excitement to rage – around Oguibe’s monument, besides its conceptual and aesthetic brilliance, was the fact that it was audacious. The obelisk had the audacity to stand on the city’s 18th-century Königsplatz, which was named after Friedrich I, King of Sweden and Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel. The obelisk had the audacity to point at Germany’s Achilles heel: the question of migration. The obelisk had the audacity to reveal the bigotry hidden behind religious claims and democratic flags. The obelisk had the audacity to betray an essential and fundamental unspoken truth in this construct called Germany: that it is a conglomerate of tribes and peoples who fought against each other for hundreds of years. United to combat the Romans in the Teutoburg Forest in 9CE, to form the German Empire in 1871, to repair the devastation of World War II in 1945, and to reunify East and West Germany in 1990, the country’s common denominator – its underlying truth, too often denied – is its strangeness and pluriversality. One might say, the obelisk revealed that we are all strangers – physically, philosophically, spiritually. But, above all, Oguibe’s obelisk had the audacity to utter, to preach and to disseminate that most unfathomable of all things: love and compassion.

The sadness that seized me upon hearing the news of the removal of Monument for Strangers and Refugees was soon dislodged by the certitude of the illimitable potential of art – its propensity, by or even beyond the will of its author, to divulge certain truths, mysteries, things unseen and unheard. As James Baldwin wrote in his seminal essay ‘The Creative Process’ (1962): ‘A society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven. One cannot possibly build a school, teach a child or drive a car without taking some things for granted. The artist cannot and must not take anything for granted, but must drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides.’ With Monument for Strangers and Refugees, Oguibe exposed several questions hidden by the plethora of answers we find in our societies.

Olu Oguibe, New Monuments Series, 2020, acrylics on acid-free watercolour paper, 2 sheets, each 76 × 107 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Kandlhofer, Vienna; photograph: Manuel Carreon-Lopez / kunst-dokumentation.com

The obelisk was later afforded an afterlife, when it was resurrected and remounted alongside other historical documenta works on Kassel’s Treppenstraße in April 2019. But this is just one of its many afterlives: the idea has metamorphosed into varying forms exploring issues of displacement and hospitality. Oguibe’s New Monuments Series (2020) acknowledges personalities like Domenico Lucano, the former mayor of Riace and the German ship captain Carola Rackete, who has been arrested docking vessels carrying migrants – people who have pushed themselves beyond their privileged bubbles to help humans – refugees – who are in dire need. Faced by today’s precariousness as we fight to survive a global pandemic, works like New York, April 2020 (2020) are markers and witnesses of the pains and crumbling of social infrastructures in these times.

This essay is part of a series on public art that will appear in the May issue of frieze

Main image: An assistant paints letters onto Olu Oguibe’s Monument to Strangers and Refugees, 2017, Kassel. Courtesy: AFP/Getty Images; photograph: John MacDougall

Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung is artistic director of sonsbeek 2020, Arnhem, the Netherlands, founding director of SAVVY Contemporary, Berlin, Germany and professor of Spatial Strategies at Weißensee Academy of Art, Berlin. In October 2020, he was awarded the Order of Merit of Berlin.