April 19, 2012
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.