Calling Art Racism Doesn’t Make You A Better Person

Makode Linde "Painful Cake"

Art is a peculiar thing. It is nearly always is created to portray a message, a message that is most times suspended in a fog of interpretation. And most people just don’t get it.

Enter Jezebel. The popular, pop-centric feminist blog released an article today criticizing a Swedish Official, Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth, who participated in a performance to raise awareness about female genital mutilation in Africa. At the event, a moving piece of performance art by Makode Aj Linde featured a Venus of Willendorf shaped cake, dressed in black icing and African jewelry, headed by the artist in blackface screaming in agony with every slice of Venus’ nethers – in relevant fashion, the cutting starts at her most intimate parts.

Jezebel (following suit with several media outlets), rather than attempting to explain or understand the history and issues being brought to light by the artist, chose to jump on the “OH EM GEE THAT SWEDISH OFFICIAL SHOULD APOLOGIZE” racism shout out bandwagon – complete with baseless reproach.

“Many Swedes are incredibly uncomfortable with photos from the event, where it appears that Liljeroth is not troubled at all by her role in the performance art, smiling, laughing, and drinking. And the crowd pictured laughing all around her sure looks like it’s full of assholes, too.”

Of course Swedes are uncomfortable with the photos – they are meant to be! Linde is throwing their racism right in their faces, after all. Oh, and way to go with the respect for others, ladies (not).

Makode Linde is know for his provocative artwork meant to bring attention to Swedish attitudes toward Black people. His art brims with symbolism. This installation was no exception. Makode Linde’s stated purpose for this work was to bring attention to the torture of female genital mutilation. In my opinion, he accomplished that quite well. I personally found the performance very disturbing; and probably would have had considerable trouble cutting into that cake.

Blackface has historically been used to dehumanize Black people. Linde’s purposeful use of blackface in his “Painful Cake” is meant to call out society for this dehumanization and show that Black women are real human beings. Blackface represents Swedish society’s view of Black women as simplistic caricatures of Black humanity rather than the real pillars of the family that they are. His performance proves his point with exemplary efficiency – no one seemed horrified by what they were seeing, at least not during the portion of the performance released on tape.

Black women suffer life-long pain from female genital mutilation. African baby-goddesses are being held down by their own mothers while their genitals are ceremoniously sliced off and sewn back up and they are then tied up for weeks to ‘heal’ badly while society is busy having cake.

Maybe if we scream loud enough, people will realize these girls are real.

22 responses to “Calling Art Racism Doesn’t Make You A Better Person

  1. Great interpretation. I think their reaction truly conveys the horror and pain these women deal with physically, psychically, and socially by being disregarded and dehumanized. It’s a painful work of art for a reason, and I don’t think there’s a better way this could’ve been conveyed.

  2. Bullshit! Those people were laughing like a lynch mob. Enjoying the screams the same way as they plunged the knife in. It trivialized the issue of genital mutilation and turned it into a joke.

    • I disagree. I don’t think this performance trivialized the issue or portrayed FGM as a joke. To the contrary, the performance showed everyone that on the surface, these people say they care about protecting African girls and stopping FGM. But deep down, they don’t really realize how FGM is hurting real people.
      The artist succeeded in his in his primary mission – that was to shine a spotlight on the state of racial attitudes in Sweden. The response of the viewers played right into that mission. The video released may not tell a complete story. But the lack of compassion in the snippet of the event that we do see is disturbing.
      The media has tried to portray this whole event as some kind of planned racist party, when actually, Linde had something very important to say. Although their (apparent) reactions weren’t appropriate for the subject matter, I commend Liljeroth and the other the guests for going to the World Art Day event, which celebrated art and it’s importance. (Note, the event was not specifically for fighting FGM.) The attitudes of the onlookers was vital to the success of the artist’s mission. It was a fabulous piece of art that accomplished EXACTLY what the artist wanted it to do.

      • I disagree. Those people were being entertained by his coonin’. The message was lost. Those white people had no problem cutting into that cake. It did not disturb them nor do I get the feeling that they left their with a deeper understanding of female circumcision.

        I do however appreciate the info you dropped on the reasoning behind the piece. However the targeted group didn’t get the message.

      • We must remember, this event was not focused on female genital mutilation, but art in general. Only this piece used FGM as the subject (from what I know). We don’t even know whether everyone at that performance understood what FGM is!
        I agree with you that the meaning of the piece was lost on some of the attendees. People tend to believe that they themselves are above reproach, that they can’t be racist. What they fail to realize is that often, the status quo IS racist.

  3. Toro Castano

    You sound incredibly forthright in your take on the performance. I would encourage you to consider how reception of art and an artists work can take on new meanings, meanings not even intended by the artist. I would encourage you to consider the question, why is a man, a man of mixed race, speaking for African women and what does it mean to be the representative and voice within a Western context. Iconographically the piece is a little confusing, especially for those familiar with African art/arts, not even speaking to the blackface. Unless one is explicitly informed that the piece is a commentary about FGM it doesn’t read that way. I would argue that without this information the piece is a stronger commentary on the consumption and use of black bodies by Westerners, both literally and figuratively.

    • The fact that the artist is of “mixed race” (if he even is) is of no consequence. Saying that is like saying the reverend Al Sharpton cannot speak for all Black Americans because some of them are mixed. It is a ridiculous notion! If a person is Black and Jewish, does that make it inappropriate for them to speak out about prejudice and anti-semitism against Jewish people? If a person is Black and caucasian, is it not appropriate for them to speak out against unequal treatment of Black people in the American justice system?

      I don’t for a second believe that Makode Linde is even remotely attempting to imitate African art. His art is Western and originates from a completely different perspective. If that’s what he were trying to do, I wouldn’t know it. However, I would have known he was speaking out against female genital mutilation with this piece having done a lot of research on the subject. It’s possible attendees there had no idea.
      Regardless, I agree with your notion about the work’s revelation of attitudes about race and white exoticism of Black women. I don’t feel the underlying subject matter (FGM) takes away from that.

      • Toro Castano

        Identity and privilege always inform and quality ones perspective which is why I cited the artists.

      • Toro Castano

        this gives even more context to the photos and video we saw http://africasacountry.com/2012/04/18/swedish-cake/#more-49304

      • What great perspective. Familiarity with the popular culture lends to deeper analysis of the situation. I myself pondered the perfectness in the capture of this event and whether it was a set up. Time will tell.
        In the meantime, I think the Minister has nothing to apologize for short of her not knowing how to react to this cake. She could use this as an opportunity to open a dialogue about race, rather than trying to distance herself from it.

      • I am very sorry but this is absolutely on art in this scene. You dont in the first place represent an African woman or children like a Golliwog caricature! Black face, white teeth and red lips. Excision is a crime ! i cant believe so called educated people in sweden can behave in this way . As a citizen of France born in Africa, i find this very very shocking and disgraceful!!! Please dont bring this cake where near France! we will surely kick you OUT!!!!!!!

      • Toro Castano

        And yet more context and analysis has emerged, this more eloquently expresses what I was trying to say earlier:

        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.

        http://www.pambazuka.org/en/category/features/81491#.T5B3B2ttPxZ.facebook

  4. CKW Bergström

    Would Adelsohn have enjoyed herself as much if the cake had been white and the head blond? I wonder…

  5. Tomas Hemstad

    Thank you for a great post!

  6. I’m sorry but there was no FGM in this and absolutely no racism. Visually the artist has failed miserably here. It wasn’t until I read what this was supposed to be that I knew. I still don’t see it.
    It’s like painting a bowl of fruit and calling it a pork sausage.
    Having said that the artist has raised awareness in the issue of FGM successfully by creating art that sparks a debate about it.

    My interpretation of this art is cannibalism – nothing more and nothing less. If you see racism in this or anything the crowd were doing then I put it to you that you’d probably find racism in that bowl of fruit – simply because you’re looking for it even if it’s not there.

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  8. I just want to share something a very good friend wrote about the performance.. Its very long, but EVERYONE needs to read this.
    “I think one of the things that is really making me sick is the consistent media descriptions of the cake/sculpture that say things like “the piece depicted an African woman” and/ or “a black woman”. This depiction was not of an african woman or a black woman,…This was a depiction of images from the imagination this artist and/as created and influenced by, the culture of the global north…the imagination of race and sex and the materiality of the other, the imagination of medical invasions into fertility and attraction, reproduction and life, of religious and scientific efforts to categorize culture-defining fears in pathological terms…
    While those of us who aren’t black women object to whatever it is we can come to articulate about these images, we have to also acknowledge the painful privilege in never be the subject of an image or event like this….similar 18th and 19th (and 20th & 21st obviously) imaginations created medical and pathological subjects out of native people and queer people and people with vaginas and people with many gods.. But our imagined sub-humanity will not be “arted” into a cake and eaten at a party by a politician trying to make a statement about the human rights of other humans that look just like us, or that look more like us and share more experience with us than they do with the politician. If someone makes art out of the sub-human imagination of our woman-ness or native-ness or queer-ness or savage-ness, we will not be given a face that is a painful reminder of how our sub-human bodies at least had entertainment value. If someone made art out of my queerness and womanness and savageness my round belly with bites taken out of it would mean a lot of things, but it wouldn’t mean the devaluation of my fertility in the context of that same fertility being used to devalue the males in my culture, the context of my children being stolen from me and my body being dug up after death, experimented on, shipped from museum to lecture hall.. Some of these things would be true, but not all of them, and not in this way, in this time and context, and not with the same comments from my contemporaries about how racism is somewhere else, or not real, or not that big a deal….or why do my people do those terrible things to little girls anyway…. ”
    I can’t figure out how it is happening, how that the look on that woman’s face is real, how separate from the need the artist had to create this and the idea that something edible could be created in the image of these fantasies, that the linguistic symbols of this event, the immaterial sign of “African woman” has become the signifier of this image….it’s almost too much to bear. It is in that moment, that the “sculpture” is described this way, all of those imaginations, the imaginations that actually comprise
    This “sculpture” are re-created, are put on the bodies of brown women who are and whose families and ancestors were the subjects of those imaginations, the victims of colonization among other tragedies of spirit and humanity. This artist went through his process, it was given this venue, and these pictures were taken. I do not need to weigh-in on the value of this art, or the value of this project as art, to say that there is nothing worth reifying the power of this cultural imagination. its terrible enough that its there, that we have access to its potentiality.

  9. Why is the cake made in the “comical” minstrel style rather than as an anatomically correct and realistic black female body? I think it would’ve sent a more serious message if it had been realistic. But perhaps blackface is more Makode’s niche. There is also the point to be made that female genital mutilation is typically performed on girls not women, ranging in age from birth to 15 years old. I think it was a publicity stunt for Mr. Linde’s notoriety, he’s garnered a lot of attention from this, and a few days ago none of us knew who he was.

  10. Vile, vile, vile!!!!!! More like seeking attention for himself!!!!

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