At the Moderna Museet in Stockholm on April 15, at the opening of an exhibition on World Art Day, there was a cake.
This cake was also a performance installation piece by artist Makode Aj Linde. Knowing, as hei did, that the cake was to be cut by the Swedish Minister for Culture and Recreation to open the exhibition, Linde created the cake in the shape of a caricatured nude African woman. He would play the part of the head, and in cutting the cake, the Minister for Culture would participate in a stylistic portrayal of female genital mutilation, captured by every smart phone and media photographer in the room.
Soon after the event, images of the cake-cutting sped through the internet, closely followed by video footage. An overwhelming number of responses to the performance were accusations of racism, aimed squarely at Linde for his use of the caricatured female African form and performance in ‘blackface’ for what appeared to be the enjoyment of others. There were also accusations of sexism, with Kitimbwa Sabuni, spokesperson for the National Afro-Swedish Association, claiming he was making a mockery of an incredibly serious issue for women and girls affected by circumcision.
I’ve been thinking about Linde’s artwork and the accusations of racism and sexism for a couple of weeks now, and it’s been needling me. It’s certainly an explosive piece, and I don’t think it’s irrelevant to question whether it is, as a whole, racist or sexist. Confronted with such loaded images I find it hard to believe that one could possibly avoid asking such questions (but more on that in a minute).
Nevertheless, I don’t think it’s a piece that should be too quickly dismissed by asking such questions. Rather, part of the reason it’s worth examining is precisely because picking it apart in the attempt to answer those questions – Is this artwork racist? Is this artwork sexist? – exposes yet again the complexity of the relationship between art and artist, politics, culture, history, the audience as a group and the audience as an individual.
An Afro-Swedish artist, Linde’s work regularly deals explicitly with race and racism, often imposing Golliwog-type caricatures on traditional and popular European paraphernalia. A quick click-through of his site reveals, among other things, images of angels in Ku Klux Klan hoods puppeting faceless black children, photographs of people with donkey faces and monkey masks, and a ‘blackface’ (and black-bodied) Betty Boop. In the words of Malcolm Harris at The State, it is ‘a sardonic grinning blackness brought to the fore of Europe’s self-representation, the critical reinsertion of the happy slave scrubbed from an otherwise unchanged cultural identity.’ In an interview with Al Jazeera, Linde claims he has been ‘doing this piece’ since 2004. While it is not clear whether he is referring to the series or the cake itself, it nevertheless exists within his body of work as a deliberate attempt at subversion of racial stereotypes. And what the interview does reveal is that he is aware of how loaded the imagery is, how abhorrent the practice of female genital mutilation is, and how offensive a ‘blackface’ performance is to many people, no matter who performs it or in what context.
Which brings me to the artwork itself. The Swedish Minister for Culture was asked to cut the cake. She did. The cake’s head – Linde, painted the same black as the cake’s icing except for the white eyes and red grin – screamed. She cut it again. The cake – an object for consumption and a living thing, presented in a form commonly understood to be, among other things, a cultural representation of the legitimisation of that consumption – screamed again. Every time. And the audience laughed. I cannot believe that such a profoundly disturbing performance was intended to make light of anything, and yet the audience laughed. They didn’t question it, they didn’t object to it, they didn’t even recoil. They laughed.
The cake was not for their delight. The wails he let forth as the cake was cut into was not for their amusement. Linde wasn’t enjoying the moment, making light of a brutal history; indeed, his presence served to shame them, to shame them for partaking in something so distasteful as a cake representing the countless girls and women who have been brutalized. They should have been outraged. They should have been disgusted, haranguing for the cake and the artist to be removed immediately. But they weren’t.
Of course, having anti-racist and anti-sexist intentions doesn’t mean a piece that engages with (as distinct from promoting) racism and sexism can’t be hurtful. Nsenga Burton wrote at The Root:
I am the subject and the audience and can view this art work through my own personal lens. The media scholar in me gets it, but the black woman in me doesn’t appreciate it. The two aren’t always mutually exclusive, but in this case they are.
An artist cannot control the way people respond to their work, however much they might wish to, and the idea that one could present racial caricatures and stylised gendered abuse in such a blatant and confronting manner and assume that to do so might be safe is absurd. To attempt it would be to provide caveats and disclaimers, warnings and explanations. To attempt it would be to tell the audience how to interpret the work and applaud them when they get it ‘right’. But I don’t think Linde’s intentions were for the piece to be safe. And I think the Swedish cultural elite responded exactly as Linde thought they would. For all his claims that the images were taken ‘out of context’, the resulting media storm was as much focused on the government officials as it was on Linde himself.
So is it racist?ii I don’t think a yes/no answer is at all adequate – not because I want to sit on the fence, but because a yes/no answer obscures the deliberate contradictions of the piece, which are precisely what give it its charge. It’s a crude, ugly, offensive and disturbing artwork. To say that it’s not any of those things is to reject the crux of it: the deliberate employment of racist imagery and the stylised performance of a sexist practice, seen by the artist as ugly and brutal, in order to expose an acceptance in white society of these ugly and brutal things. Those images, stereotypes and acts are not okay, and we should not pretend that they are okay. But Linde doesn’t want them to be okay, and it’s not a piece that’s meant to make you think they are okay. It’s crude, ugly, offensive and disturbing, but it was also extremely effective.
i Harris’ piece suggests that Linde identifies as female. I’m using male pronouns because I can’t find any other support for this but am happy to change them if necessary. When I looked, Linde’s Facebook page did not specify gender identification.
ii I’m less sold on whether or not I think it is sexist. Some specific quotes may help illustrate why. Nsenga Burton again: Having learned that Linde is black doesn’t make me less angry about the piece. It speaks to the practice in many countries of black men being given the opportunity to tell stories about black women through film, plays and art, while black women have to stand on the sidelines silent and then are assailed for critiquing the men who get to lambaste our experiences in the name of art.
And The Rookie Files: Linde was asked why he chose female circumcision as his subject. He responded that European discussions of female circumcision tend to isolate oppression against women as a problem specific to black Africa, adding that “oppression against women and homophobia can take different forms in Africa, or in Europe, or in Sweden, or anywhere.”
Linde suggests that European political discussions of female genital mutilation take women’s bodies as a metaphor for the African continent. Yet his work succumbs to the same tendency even as he satirises it. The real woman – acknowledged at least obliquely in the reference to FGM – becomes irrelevant as soon as FGM is exposed as a phantom issue [a red herring for the issue of racism in general]. The representation of ‘woman’ left is a symbol for Africa, and the spectacle of violence against a woman is subsumed beneath a broader, more abstract evil – person made metonym.