Swedish Performance Art Called Racist

April 20, 2012

In a stunning collision between art and pastry, a Swedish artist has managed to inflame passions and engender charges of racism, insensitivity and plain old bad taste. Performance artist Makode Aj Linde displayed a cake in the shape of the torso, genitals, and ringed neck of an African woman.  

The red velvet cake interior of the black fondant-covered confection, while visually stunning in its own right, was eclipsed by the sight of Linde himself.  His own head was painted black with red lips and open mouth fashioned into a scream to top the design. Linde explains that the intention of his cake piece was to draw attention to the scourge of female genital mutilation and racism.   

 

It was the video, though, that left the bad taste in the mouths of those who weren’t actually there to sample the revelry. Sweden's minister of culture, Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth, opened World Art Day festivities by "performing a clitoridectomy on the cake," prompting tortured cries and screaming from the cake’s head.  Lijeroth feeds the cake to Linde, and other attendees take their own slices amid laughing and merrymaking from the crowd.

People around the world are incensed.  Outraged and insulted Swedes are calling for Minister Liljeroth‘s resignation.  The Moderna Museeet in Stockholm had to be evacuated after a bomb threat.   

Threats of violence aside, this cake was a perfect representation of what the artist was trying to illustrate.  Linde’s work of art brilliantly challenges all who see it to wrestle with the political, social and even religious messages it sends about FGM and racism. The shape of the artwork brings to mind the physical body of the so-called “Hottentot Venus.”  “Venus,” was Sarah Baartman, a South African woman enslaved and displayed throughout Europe.  Clebrated as a sexual curiosity, her elongated labia were pickled and displayed in a French museum until the era of the Ford administration. But one need not look to history for grotesque displays of exploitation of the black female form.  The breaking of black bodies for the amusement and merriment of spectators has made many a dollar for coaches and managers alike.  Music media consumers too, have had to consider the hyper-sexualization of black women and girls.  

Is it okay, might the attendees have questioned, to consume and delight in the mutilation of this body?  She is crying.  What does this mean for the girls and women who truly cry out?  What does this human sacrifice mean?  What does it demand of me?   This black body cake was not merely a visual work; it was a performance piece. It’s no stretch, then, to see that the revelers were sharing in artistic communion.  While Sweden is one of the least religious countries in the world, the idea behind eating the flesh of a tortured innocent couldn’t possibly be foreign to people who are instructed as schoolchildren about the religious traditions of major world faiths.

But to what was Linde’s cake body being sacrificed?

His idea, and the execution of it, were profound.  Forcing people to de-objectify a cake -- to see it as a person, to hear its pleas to stop hurting it — was a brilliant way to get the topic of objectifying black women literally onto the lips of everyone who viewed the work. There are some who are unable to get past the vision of what they believe to be a caricature of a black woman.  They see the black face in “blackface,” and turn away.  They see the image and miss that it is not serving as an object.  It is a symbol.  It speaks to the problem that is unrecognized and unseen by most. This was not just a piece of tasty cake.

Minister Liljeroth has apologized for taking part in what’s being called a “racist spectacle.”  She describes herself as being “anti-racist” and has blocked Swedish tax funding of a nationalist newspaper.  She is doing the work to make Sweden a place that accepts and does not simply tolerate people of color.  But the rage against her is misplaced. Linde’s body of work is provocative.  He’s a Swede of African descent, and he explained that his intention was to make the cake “more living.”  To make the cake less of an object.  He wanted the cake to speak for the unheard and often overlooked black bodies of women and girls who are hurt and consumed for the pleasure of others.  Pleasure they will never experience for themselves.

It’s the role of the artist to provoke.  This artist certainly did that.  And in the truest spirit of art, many people don’t get it.  Many don’t like it.  Some think they can’t judge a cake they haven’t tasted. Because of Makode Aj Linde’s artwork people have researched “female genital mutilation” and “clitoridectomy.”  Perhaps some of those will be likewise moved to condemn it.

Jamila Bey is a reporter and hosts the radio show "The Sex, Politics And Religion Hour: SPAR With Jamila" on the Voice of Russia Radio on AM 1390 in Washington, DC and AM 1430 in New York City.  @jbey

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