Last week at Colorlines.com/NOW, Jorge Rivas brought us the ongoing story of the racist cake-cutting scandal that’s surrounded Sweden’s culture minister. (Yes, you read that right.) At a museum event to highlight the problem of female cirumcision, queer Afro-Swedish artist Makode Linde performed in blackface, playing the screaming head of an edible cake caricature of Sarah Baartman. As part of the performance, Sweden’s minister of culture, Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth, cut off the cake’s genitals and fed them to Linde. And while this piece’s oddly artless jumble of symbols has a lot to dislike even on paper, many feel that what pushed it over the edge of taste was the room’s reaction; photos and video of the event show a room full of white people laughing and eating cake while Linde screams in mock pain.
Afro-Swedish groups have called for the minister to resign, but neither she nor Linde have backed down. (Which, in some ways, is a refreshing change from the false apologies we usually hear in these situations.) It’s worth remembering that Sweden doesn’t have an excuse to ignore race. In the 1960s and 1970s, the government was enlightened enough to document the U.S. Black Power movement; in the present day, Sweden is subject to the same wave of racist Islamophobia as much of the West.
Which begs the old question: are artists always helping our causes by giving them attention? Or is Linde doing a disservice to the communities he claims this piece is to benefit? Here’s what you had to say. (And for the flipside of the problem of ‘representation by caricature,’ check out Jorge’s writeup of HBO’s Girls for his analysis of what ‘no representation at all’ looks like.)
Liepollo Pheko, who spoke at our 2008 Facing Race conference, starts us off:
> This is so nasty and so vile. Sarah Baartman was the object of physical humiliation and mutiliation thoughout her life and, apparently, throughout her death. She was sliced up while on display in Europe, and is again sliced up long after the last of her brutalised remains finally made it home. To even use the image of slicing a Black woman’s genitalia – supposedly in solidarity with women who are sliced on the continent – is perverse beyond words. And while smiling and carrying on like it’s some S&M thrill.
> And indeed, there is no female circumcision in South Africa, so why use Sarah Baartman as the symbol? And why paint her Sambo black when she was a Khoi woman? And why have the ‘cake’ cry out when its cut? It is the worst fetishization of Black women’s sexuality, bodies, and the notion that “it’s better when it hurts.” As an African woman, I find it exhausting and deeply offensive. And I am really tired of folks ‘saving my clitoris,’ especially sections of the White feminist movement. So all this is yet another usurpation of African women’s voices, another interpretation of US to US, another attempt to tell us we are too touchy, hostile, angry, bitter, unforgiving, reverse racist, reverse sexist and kind of crazy. SCREW
YOU if I am. Do you blame me?
> Art may provoke, but it should take us all to a higher place, not to a dungeon of stereotyping, misogyny, crude caricature and utter contempt for humanity and dignity.
> Wow! I agree the “art” is offensive as a black woman, but even more so for women who have suffered genital mutilation. I can’t imagine how anyone is supposed to feel empowered, or cared about, with a cake that is brutalized in mockery of a very serious problem.
> One big word that Makode Linde needs to memorize: intersectionality. >
> Makode: “I wanted to somehow make the cake more human, not just a silent object. More interactive, simply.” >
> I’ve said this a million times: Bigotry makes human beings apathetic, sociopathic, and stupid. >
> How is representing African women as a Sambo/golliwog blackface image making it “more human?” I can’t think of anything more violently objectifying than representing Black women survivors of GM as Sambo. >
> And if the comments at some Swedish news sites are any indication, the entire Swedish society has a big problem with white nationalism and anti-immigrant hysteria. >
> […] Makode Linde is falling on the same tired defensive excuse all lazy artists make when they make badly executed work: the public is “taking it out of context.” Sir – it is YOUR job as the artist to make it clear what your intent is, using the physical and cultural materials you have at your disposal. >
> If the public doesn’t understand your intent, that is your failure, not ours.
> The love-hate relationship between an artist’s self-expression and the public’s approval is a long-standing one. Your position is not a historically defensible one unless you are going to consider Edgar Allen Poe, Vincent Van Gogh, El Greco, Cy Tombly (as well as all modern art) as monumental failures. In addition, the widely circulated photo was not the context in which the artist wished his art to be revealed. Artists have struggled for control over their own presentation for ages. >
> […] Taking black face, and transposing onto different mediums to visually throw it back into everyone’s face. A cake of this idea with a living person inside? With (white) people cutting and eating it? How is that not art? Those who do not see this as art need to seriously reevaluate what it is, exactly, that you think “art” is. >
> Does all art have to have a political motivation? Do the political motivations of all art need to agree with your sensibilities?
> Context also includes the audience and their identities/privileges. everyone seems to be getting quite a kick out of the whole thing. people are already presumed to be aware of the issue, and race does not seem to be addressed in any other capacity. there’s no “debriefing,” as it were, on how this is protest and not meant to be internalized or enjoyed.
> The most difficult part of this is that for many years, until President Mandela requested their return, Saartje Baartman’s genitalia was preserved in a jar in a French museum… so to repeat this blackface image and connection to female genital mutilation is too much without the artist bearing more responsibility about how the performance piece would be received, perceived, etc.
Ife Kweli Shakur:
> Phony is as phony does. A Swedish organization promoting the ‘rights of African people’ with not one African in the room, except for one portraying himself as a minstrel show.
Thandisizwe Andallvictimsofwhitesupremacy Chimurenga:
> Consuming her without giving a damn … same as when she actually walked this earth.
> As an innovative and engaging way of reenacting European (and American) history, it was rather successful.
> That the crowd does not react except with nervous smiles and then indifference to the display reflects precisely how “regular people” react quite often when sexual violence and mutilation is discussed… It is disturbing to talk about “these issues” in “polite company.”
> I think the entire scene is brilliant and disturbing at the level of representation, which is all art is about. After all, the art piece is a performance piece which means we must look at the entirety – the cake (horrifying), the head (equally horrifying and sad), the participants in the room, the setting, the reaction online, etc. The performance goes on and on, and we learn about ourselves in relationship to this issue.
> Was the decision to present joviality and mock mutilation together made on purpose, or was it funny because of the conditioning and prejudiced mindsets that it’s alright to laugh at stereotypes of so-called primitive cultures and their “zany” practices? I wonder how humorous it would be if they saw the REALITY of it up close among their own community’s girls. Would it still bring out the “fun” side of the Swedish Cultural Minister at this social affair if this sickening mockery looked like her?
> Next, she’ll be hosting a contest with Elle MacPherson piñatas and Gisele punching bags to ‘fight’ for battered women.
> That awkward moment when the expressions, behavior and justifications of “allies” and enemies are the same…interesting how OFTEN they completely overlap or Venn diagram versus being polar opposites. >
> In matters of social justice, it appears that most people impacted by a particular issue have to FIGHT “allies” more than enemies.
> Looks like we have another shock-based artist on our hands. “Piss Jesus” step back! I understand the intentions of the artist were to shine a light on FGM, and the live person inside the cake was a great touch – but creepy does not = the horror of FGM. The cake idea was good – the casual way one cuts a cake is illustrative and here quite literal – FGM needs to be taken MUCH more seriously and making this ‘a piece of cake’ is messed up – but gets the point across that being as casual about the cutting of FGM as one would be about cutting a cake is SO wrong. >
> I would like to know the intent of making the cake a grotesque and offensive racist caricature. That choice undermines any possible learning in the cake metaphor, and is just so far from ok it can not be measured. This is where the art project reaches ‘epic fail’ status. If this art student was in my class I would flunk this project on that basis and send them back to the drawing board for another shot.
> Question for the minister and the artist: “Do you now think this exhibition is a success to challenge female genital mutilation even by 1%?”
> I advise both of you go back to your home when it’s silent, look at your families, and look your faces in the mirror and congratulate yourselves if by any way, in your stomach, you think that is RIGHT!