By Arturo R. García
It’s the kind of thing that shocked even experienced anti-racism activists around the Web: a few tweets went out along the lines of, What’s this going on in SwedenWHATTHEHELL? And this time the reaction was justified.
In what he has called an attempt to draw attention to the practice of female genital mutilation, Swedish artist Makode Aj Linde made himself into a “cake” as part of an art installation at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. This past Sunday, according to reports, the country’s Minister of Culture, Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth, took part, cutting slices from “his” clitoris as he screamed in mock agony, and Liljeroth and the crowd of white attendees with her laughed at what a spokesperson for the National Afro-Swedish Association (NAFA) called “a racist spectacle.”
Shots of Linde’s project can be seen here, as well as in the other source material for this post under a heavy Trigger Warning. But as you can see from the image above, blackface was apparently a part of Linde’s repetoire before this incident.
Colorlines quoted from an interview with the artist on Swedish radio:
Makode: It’s sad if people feel offended, but considering the low number of artists in Sweden who identify as Afro-swedish I find it sad that the Afro-Swedish Association haven’t followed my artistry and do not understand what my work is about.
What did the minister of culture say to you when she was there? Was she hesitant about eating of the cake?
Makode: I didn’t clearly see her reaction, but judging from the pictures she was surprised when she realised that the cake was living. And before she put the knife into me, into the cake, she said “Your life will be better like this”. And when she put the knife into me I started screaming and begged her to stop. This was a part of the performance.
But what was the thought behind you being a living head?
Makode: I wanted to somehow make the cake more human, not just a silent object. More interactive, simply.
That “interactivity” seemed to take on another dimension over the past 24 hours, as police were called to the museum to respond to a bomb threat not long after the images of Linde’s efforts went viral. And NAFA began to call for Liljeroth’s resignation.
“I understand quite well that this is provocative and that it was a rather bizarre situation,” she was quoted as saying. “I was invited to speak at World Art Day about art’s freedom and the right to provoke. And then they wanted me to cut the cake.”
In her attempt to justify her participation to the event, Adelsohn Liljeroth said that art was meant to be provocative, and that the pictures of the event are misunderstood. This reveals her careless attitude towards this racist incident, but it is also a familiar manifestation of Swedish politics and how it views black people.
Clearly, Adelsohn Liljeroth participated and encouraged a crude racist act in her capacity as a government representative. What makes matters worse is that she subsequently expressed no regret, instead choosing to question the intelligence of all those who criticise her. If a top politician can resign for such things as buying diapers with government credit cards, as happened recently, then it goes without saying that Adelsohn Liljeroth must take responsibility for what happened and resign.
But more than that, why is it that Stockholm’s Museum of Modern Art, a major state institution, organised a spectacle like this? This can only be understood by looking at the country as a whole. Racism and racist depictions against black people are common in Sweden.
– Jallow Momodou, The Guardian
The revulsion works on two levels. The artist, Makode Aj Linde, obviously intended his installation as a work of deadly-dark, vicious satire dramatizing the horror of Female Genital Mutilation, and he hit that mark like a laser.
The reaction of the assembled crowd, though, is perhaps more disturbing. They don’t seem to understand that this isn’t supposed to be “Ha-ha”-funny, and if observers ascribe their glee to a detached, condescending form of racism, I’d be hard-pressed to disagree. Really, who knows what they were thinking? Who the eff laughs at that?
But I also strongly object to the widespread characterization of the installation itself as somehow racist. The artist is black, and his intention is obviously to dramatize a human rights violation being perpetrated against African girls and women. The interaction with the cake may well have been racist, but the installation itself is exactly the opposite of that.
– Tommy Christopher, Mediaite
Mariam Osman Sherifay of the Swedish Centre against Racism described the images of the minister as “deeply disturbing”, and said the art installation was “problematic”.
“In Sweden, it seems to be comme il faut to caricature Africans in ways we could never imagine portraying other ethnic groups which have been persectuted: for example Jews, Romani or Saami people. Still in the 21th century we haven’t dealt with the stereotypical notions of Africans that seem to have been passed on by heredity in Swedish mentality.”
Karin Olsson, culture editor of Swedish daily Expressen, wrote that the event appeared to be a “brilliant performance, in which the initially humourostic tone raised questions about power and colonial perspectives.
“Of course it would have been easier to do as PR consultants and nervous press spokesmen probably would have recommended: politely decline cutting the cake, to avoid tough questions afterwards. But such sterile politicians, who never take a risk, are not wanted,” she wrote.
The arts critic Dan Jonsson of the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter raised the possibility that Adelsohn Lijeroth had been “trapped”, and said that whatever the minister had chosen to do, it would have been “wrong”.
“Either she’d been accused of being judgemental about artistic freedom, or to express racism,” he wrote. “If this is the case, it was a skillfully set trap.”
– Al Jazeera
When I saw the photo, I initially thought of Sarah “Saartjie” Baartman, commonly referred to as the Hottentot Venus. Baartman was an enslaved South African woman who was literally put on display as entertainment throughout Europe because of what the medical and scientific establishment regarded as her exceptional bodily form: protruding buttocks and an elongated labia.
Baartman was “exhibited” in London even after the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and eventually sold to a Frenchman. In France she was exhibited under even more demeaning conditions, some at the hands of an animal trainer. She was the subject of several scientific paintings. Baartman died in 1815, and her preserved genitals and brain were on display at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris until 1997, when her remains were repatriated to South Africa at the request of President Nelson Mandela.
Liljeroth’s participation in the current heinous act demonstrates just how far we haven’t come as it relates to the treatment of black women’s bodies. The kind of pain, suffering and humiliation endured by Baartman — who was literally property from which economic institutions like slavery, and cultural institutions like museums, benefited during and after her lifetime — is met with little regard or sensitivity by those who would call themselves “anti-racist.” If Liljeroth is anti-racist, then Houston, we have a problem. This wanton act and her willing participation in it speaks to the perversion of power as it relates to race, gender and sexuality.
– Nsenga K. Burton, The Root
With allies like this, who needs enemies? Cutting into a woman’s body even symbolically is violent. To watch as these White women laughed and consumed cake, supposedly out of concern for a problem that does not happen to them, belittles the struggle to end the horror of FGM. The fact that the cake is a red velvet cake underscores the violence as the red symbolizes blood. Hasn’t enough Black blood been spilled in the name of White supremacy and patriarchy?
There is also the black face to consider. There is never a situation in which this will ever be acceptable. The idea that because art is meant to challenge the consumer does not give one license to behave in a racist and sexist manner. This supposed art does not challenge any preconceived notions and only affirms White supremacy and patriarchy. It dehumanizes instead of uplifting.
I felt pain looking at that cake. It leaves me speechless and unable to articulate the hurt. That this was done by a supposed liberal group of White women comes as no surprise, because there is a long history of White people claiming to be concerned with the plight of people of colour, even as they work to support and strength White supremacy. These women may well have felt that because their intent was good that no harm was done, but they are wrong. Intent is not a magical elixir and much harm has been done in the name of good intentions.
– Renee Martin, Womanist Musings
On the one hand, the minister was just doing her job. Obviously it’d be hard to double back and say, “Well, I just applauded provocative art in my speech, but this is just too yucky.” On the other, more sensible hand, WHO SCREENS THE OBVIOUSLY RACIST SHIT THAT ENTERS THIS GALLERY? That might be a good thing that ought to happen before government officials make asses of themselves. Or before anyone has to cut a racist cannibal circumcision cake. Ever.