Monday, April 23, 2012

The Missing Ingredient in Sweden’s Racist-Misogynist Cake

Shailja Patel
Pambazuka News
April 19, 2012


TOP LAYER

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.

SECOND LAYER

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.

THIRD LAYER

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.
___________________

Comment: Brilliant deconstruction by Patel.  So much of the racist and misogynistic framing is missed by those in the west and elsewhere who want us to believe that the artist has a right to represent this issue because he has a blood quotient that makes him a descendant of an African.

That assumption is inherently racist.

When I first read Patel's article I had not seen the actual cake because her article does not include a picture.

I sourced the picture above from an article by Max Fisher of The Atlantic who cannot say enough about the brilliance of  Makode Linde.

What brilliance is my thinking?  The cake is contrived racist bullsh*t taken out of the bloody pages of Jim Crow symbolism that was used to disfigure black women.

Fischer like Linde are typical of the hovering from above analysis that so many in the west think is enough to characterize and define African issues.

For too many the entry into the continent is via Tarzan, King Kong, savages and, of course, FGM.

FGM is a tired political hobby horse of moralizing white liberals and conservatives across the globe but how is it even marginally served by reducing the bodies of African women to blackface stereotypes that have its origins and sustenance in white racism?

The stereotypes Linde used/invoked in this supposed piece of art did nothing more than to reinforce the racist manner in which whiteness conceives of African women in particular, and Africans in general.

The cutting and eating of the cake screams of a patronizing insensitivity to the manner in which whiteness objectifies and consumes Africa and Africans.

Even the Ku Klux Klan could not have done a better job to humiliate African women and to ostensibly render them silenced while whiteness sat around pronouncing on their marginal value.

The man is a devious fool to assert that he was seeking to highlight the wrongs of FGM.  Who is he trying to convince?  White folks?  Or Africans?

Is he even aware of the struggles African women have waged and continue to wage against FGM?  If he is it is not apparent in the one dimensional discourse he re-released on an all white audience.

What Linde has done is to sell well-worn stereotypes to profit his personal agenda and in so doing he has stolen from African women in the sense that he has appropriated their voices (see "Mute and Mutilated: Black Women and the Cutting of the ' Racist' Cake" for more discussion). 

Patel is right to assert that he cannot speak for African women - he lacks the credibility and nuanced closeness at the very least and even worse he is a man distant/removed from the very issue he purports to represent.

Also, he cannot speak for Africans merely because he can claim a racialized blood link - a point that is important to make since so many in the white west think he is above being held responsible for being racist.

The replication of racism is still racism.

Still, I would not censor his right to make an ass of himself.  Even offensive speech must be free and this moment of disgrace offers a learning opportunity.

But, please see this piece of over-bloated and outdated bullsh*t for what it is - it ain't about African women or about representing their struggles.

Onward!

5 comments:

eccentricyoruba said...

I am still deeply disturbed every time I see a photo of the "nigger cake". It was almost traumatizing the first time I saw it and I don't think I'll be able to stomach watching the video in which the cake is sliced up while Linde screams.

This is a perfect example of gendered racism. It is not surprising that largely the voices of African women, in particular African women who have undergone FGM have been excluded from the discussion. Linde clearly doesn't know much about FGM (or he'd know that the practice is mostly carried out on babies or young girls for example). It also looks to me like he is the typical white supremacist Black person who doesn't mind playing anti-Black racist tunes to get in the good books of his white "friends".

I was somewhat disappointed to come across blogs written by Black African men calling for "calm" and suggesting that the uproar against the "nigger cake" was unwarranted. The only relevant voice I appreciated in this conversation was that of Kola Boof who has written about being genitally mutilated. She wrote an excellent response to the incident.

Ridwan said...

SLM eccentricyoruba:

Thank you for registering your disgust here my sista. It is important that we take a stand against this kind of racist misogyny.

You are accurate when you describe the kind of go-between role that Linde is playing here (does he even read Fanon I wonder?).

As I read you I could see a thousand other Linde's I've encountered over the years - the ones who interpret for whiteness in such a way that it is confirmed and raised up.

I think you are also right to deconstruct even further when you say women who have suffered FGM are absolutely silenced and disfigured by his nonsense.

Sadly though there are as you say among us those who think our reaction and resistance is misplaced.

I have no patience with this kind of thinking because it is supposed upon a dysfunctional self-hatred.

Thank you for the link sista - I will pass it around for sure.

Much peace,
Ridwan

Ridwan said...

Oh before I forget I read that Linde intended the cake to represent Sara Baartman!

Did you see that?

Now how does a South African woman who was dissected literally and racially abused by whiteness over centuries tie into FGM?

This fool it seems cannot even distinguish between epochs.

See the story here:
http://colorlines.com/archives/2012/04/how_can_artists_use_racism_for_justice_reader_forum.html

Onward!

eccentricyoruba said...

Wasalam,

I saw that. It does look like Linde is confused, lumping in Sara Baartman, FGM and blackface-to-make-a-point all in one.

Btw have you seen the most recent post on Africa is a Country that features an interview with Linde?

http://africasacountry.com/2012/04/24/africa-is-a-country-interview-with-makode-linde/

Ridwan said...

I have not seen that interview but will take a look for sure.

Thanks for link and feedback.

Peace.

Ridwan