By Shailja Patel
The scene is Stockholm’s Museum of Modern Art, on Sunday, April 15th. The event is the celebration of World Art Day, and the 75th birthday of the Swedish Artists Organisation. Five artists have been asked to create birthday cakes for the occasion.
This is what the world will see, in photos and on video, the next morning.
On the table, a huge cake, with a smooth shiny black surface, in the form of a caricatured African female body, sans legs. Naked, splayed on its back, it is composed of crotch, belly mound, large pendulous breasts held by truncated stick arms, a row of neck rings. Where the neck rings end, a living human head rears up through a hole in the table. The head belongs to the kneeling body of a man. It is tricked out in exaggerated blackface –large white circles around the eyes, drawn-on cartoon red mouth and pointed teeth.
Sweden’s female Minister of Culture, Lena Adelsohn-Liljeroth, approaches the cake with a knife in her hand. She performs a simulated clitoridectomy, cutting the first slice from the crotch, to reveal a moist spongy red interior. The head of the body moans and shrieks with pain. A roomful of white Swedes, men and women, laugh and applaud. Cameras flash. In the photographs, faces appear alive, avidly entertained, as the minister feeds the slice she has cut to the grinning head. More people cut and eat slices of the cake body, dismembering it. The head moans, yells, screams with each knife-stroke.
There are no people of colour in the room. There are no black women in the room.
The images go viral. The African Swedish National Association demands the Minister’s resignation, as do hundreds of viewers across the world. Hundreds more register outrage and disgust on social media. It is unacceptable that the body of an African woman can be represented this way, as an object for violation and consumption. It is unacceptable that a government minister of Sweden can publicly enact the violation and consumption of that body, and laugh as she does it.
The artist who created this cake-installation, Makode Linde, is a biracial Swedish man, of mixed black and white heritage. He refers to himself as an Afro-Swede. It was he who knelt under the table, playing the head of the cake-woman.
“Within my art I try to raise a discussion and awareness about black identity and the diversity of it,” Linde says on Al-Jazeera. “The [recent] discussions [about my cake piece] have been mostly if I or the culture minister are racist or not. I think it is a shallow analysis of the work. It’s easy to take any image and put it in the wrong context.”
His intention, he says, was to prompt action against the female genital mutilation (FGM) practiced by certain African communities. The performance “went off the exact way I wanted it.”
“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.”
And he continues:
“If people can get this upset from a woman cutting a cake, can’t they use that energy towards the real battle against female genital mutilation?”
He displays no ambivalence about his appropriation of the body and experience of an African woman. There is no suggestion that he has ever spoken to women from communities which practice FGM, the ones his installation is supposedly intended to benefit, or that he has invited their feedback on this piece.
The plot thickens.
Swedish arts blogger Johan Palme frames the incident as a ‘very efficient mousetrap’ for the Minister of Culture.
Apparently, Lena Adelsohn-Liljeroth, the culture minister, “is reviled by large parts of the art world for her culture-sceptic stance and for previously condemning provocative art in what many see as a kind of censorship.”
Therefore, she arrived at the event acutely conscious of the need to repair her tattered image and dissolve the perception that she is a threat to freedom of expression in Sweden. Handed a knife, and asked to cut into the crotch of the cake-woman, she knew that if she balked or questioned, she risked being pilloried as an enemy of provocative art.
“Lena Adelsohn-Liljeroth tries to play along as best she can in what she sees as a “bizarre” situation, reciprocating the laughter.” writes Palme. “And on the other side of the cake, placed in the narrow space in front of a glass wall, stands one of the minister’s fiercest critics, visual artist and provocateur Marianne Lindberg De Geer, camera at the ready. And she snaps pictures of the whole series of events, as the minister is egged into doing more outrageous things, performing for the crowd.”
Palme also reveals that artist Makode Linde’s has another life: “he’s a club promoter and DJ, one of Sweden’s most successful, who knows exactly how to manipulate crowds and their emotions.”
Following the global outcry the Minister releases a statement:
Our national cultural policy assumes that culture shall be an independent force based on the freedom of expression. Art must therefore be allowed room to provoke and pose uncomfortable questions. As I emphasised in my speech on Sunday, it is therefore imperative that we defend freedom of expression and freedom of art —even when it causes offence.
I am the first to agree that Makode Linde’s piece is highly provocative since it deliberately reflects a racist stereotype. But the actual intent of the piece — and Makode Linde’s artistry — is to challenge the traditional image of racism, abuse and oppression through provocation. While the symbolism in the piece is despicable, it is unfortunate and highly regrettable that the presentation has been interpreted as an expression of racism by some. The artistic intent was the exact opposite.
It is perfectly obvious that my role as minister differs from that of the artist. Provocation can not and should not be an expression for those who have the trust and responsibility of Government representative. I therefore feel it is my responsibility to clarify that I am sincerely sorry if anyone has misinterpreted my participation and I welcome talks with the African Swedish National Association on how we can counter intolerance, racism and discrimination.
Still missing: the voice of any black woman. I wonder why Nyamko Sabuni, Sweden’s dynamic Minister for Integration and Gender Equality, and the only black woman in Sweden’s cabinet, has not been asked to comment. In 2006, Sabuni created a storm of controversy when she called for mandatory gynecological examinations of all schoolgirls in Sweden in order to prevent genital mutilation. If she had been the speaker at this event, would she have been asked to cut the cake? Could her absence from the debate be because the inconvenient fact of a live articulate powerful black Swedish woman, who actually makes policy on FGM, shows up Linde’s shock art for the puerile nonsense it is?
THE BASE LAYER
Nothing about me, without me has been the rallying cry of numerous movements for justice and representation at the tables of power.
It’s tragic that in 2012, this basic tenet of any political art or advocacy is continually ignored by the entitled. And never more so than when it comes to African women and girls, the world’s favourite target for rescue, the population everyone loves to speak for and speak about, but rarely cares to listen to. What makes this cake episode so deeply offensive is the appropriation, by both Linde and his audience, of African women’s bodies and experiences, while completely excluding real African women from the discourse. It is a pornography of violence.
Jiwon Chung, leading theorist of Boal’s Theater Of The Oppressed, offers a useful set of questions to apply to any art that claims to address the suffering of a particular group or class of human beings. Let’s apply them to Linde’s cake installation, and the argument of his supporters that it somehow serves women and girls from communities that practice FGM.
1) Cui bono? Who benefits?
Linde has achieved overnight global fame from this exercise – the kind of exposure and media spotlight artists dream of. Sweden’s Culture Minister, Lena Adelsohn-Liljeroth has established herself as a champion of provocative art. It’s not clear how any woman who has had FGM, or any girl at risk of FGM, is materially better off.
2) How do those whose suffering / body / experience is depicted feel? Do they feel they’ve been done justice?
A brief survey of comments on media sites and facebook postings about this event suggest that the overwhelming majority of African women feel ‘outraged’, ‘violated’, ‘furious’, ‘sick’.
3) Are you speaking for them (because you have a voice, and they don’t), or are they speaking for you, because what they have to say is so much more compelling than you?
The only one vocalizing anything in Linde’s art is – Makonde Linde. His caricature of an African woman doesn’t even vocalize words, just sounds of pain.
The next five questions, only Linde can answer.
4) Are you attributing clearly (giving clear credit?)
5) Are you dialectical?
6) Is your I a we? Is your we an I?
7) If their suffering were to disappear, would you be truly happy? Or would you have to look for something else onto which to glom your dissatisfaction?
8) Do you belong, do you truly claim solidarity with the suffering — or do you do it only when it fits in with your concerns and schedule? How do you support them outside your art?
Here’s an idea for truly provocative art. No more male artists, black or white, speaking for African women. No more ever-more-graphic ever-more-voyeuristic art on the suffering of African women. Stop using the female African body as raw material to be worked – unless you happen to live in one. Then, notice that African women are making their own work about their lives and struggles. Look. Listen. Learn.
Kenyan artist and activist Shailja Patel is the author of Migritude (Kaya Press, 2010), and a founding member of Kenyans for Peace, Truth and Justice. She has just been selected to represent Kenya at the 2012 Cultural Olympiad in London.