How on earth does something like this happen?

Wednesday, April 18th, 2012 · 16 Comments »

There’s mind-boggling, and then there’s mind-boggling. The picture of the FGM cake and the Swedish culture minister, above, is boggling in the truest sense. All you can do at first is just look at it in gobsmacked wonderment. What the FUCK? What are these people thinking? How did this happen? And if you’re a woman, the whole FGM-as-screaming-pastry motif and the laughter and the knife and the red velvet cake is enough to make you absolutely sick to your stomach.

The pat description that goes along with the picture on most sites only deepens the sense of bogglement. Here’s Jezebel’s version: “It’s the Swedish minister of culture cutting up a taxpayer-funded cake baked to look like a racist caricature of a black woman at the opening of an exhibit about the horrors of female circumcision, and a crowd of people laughing while she feeds a piece of it (red velvet, natch) to the actor in blackface someone hired to poke their head out from a hole in the table so that it looks like the cake is alive and crying.”

But that doesn’t explain anything. Yes, I realize Sweden is a different country, but it’s not a different planet. There’s got to be more to it.

And so I spent the evening reading up, trying to figure out how this monstrous thing happened.

To begin with, Jezebel’s description is factually wrong in a couple of important ways. The screaming head doesn’t belong to an “actor in blackface someone hired,” but to the male performance artist who created the cake. In fact, the whole thing was a piece of performance art. The cake wasn’t commissioned as refreshment for some event, and there doesn’t seem to have been any other connection with FGM. It was a performance art installation at the Swedish Museum of Modern Art on the occasion of World Art Day. The culture minister was there to speak about World Art Day—specifically about “artistic freedom and the right to offend”—and she was invited to participate in the gruesome cake thing as part of the day’s activities.

None of this excuses the horribleness of the cake, but it does go a long way towards explaining how something like this even gets off the ground. Calling something “art” significantly changes the context. It’s like the difference between Piss Christ at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and Piss Christ at the White House Easter Egg Roll. The latter would never happen in a million years, but as for the former, well, it’s art, right?

Except that art isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card for exploiting grotesque misogyny and racism, which is where this cake runs into problems. The piece was created by Makode Linde, an Afro-Swedish artist who seems to specialize in reappropriating blackface and golliwogg imagery.

Afro-Swedish artist Makode Linde.

Here’s what the Afro-Europe blog says:

Makode Linde is known for his art, which is based on racism, xenophobia and slavery. The cake, which was part of his work, was to make a Western perception of Africa in contrast to the real picture of slavery and oppression. He also stresses that the main purpose of the cake was not to depict mutilation.

To which I say: horseshit. I don’t know about the rest of this guy’s oeuvre, but I know damn well that the purpose of this cake was not to “make a Western perception of Africa” (whatever the hell that means). The purpose of the cake was to make a perception of Makode Linde. People who are trying to earn a living as artists are understandably fixated on calling attention to themselves, but this is especially true of those mining the shock/performance vein. Most of it is just “look at me” provocation, the meatspace equivalent of linkbait. It’s advertisement, not art. The FGM cake doesn’t tell us anything about FGM or Africa or Western perceptions of Africa; all it really tells us is that Makode Linde wants us to look at him.

Which is exactly what we’re doing. And I guarantee you Linde is thrilled to pieces with all the attention his creepy cake is getting. For a working artist trying to make it on the scene, this is money in the bank.

Animal NY reminds us that, last November, “when Marina Abramović dismembered an oozing cake version of herself and Deborah Harry at the MoCA, some of the swanky gala guests chanted ‘Violence against women!’” Hell, maybe cake violence is the latest edgy transgressive trend in the transgressive edgy world of edgy transgressive performance art. Which, I note, almost never seems to involve naked male bodies (or dolls or cakes) being mutilated and raped and dismembered. Contemporary performance art, like contemporary advertising, fetishizes violence against women. It’s just so goddamn edgy and transgressive.

As for Makode Linde, when he posted a picture of his edgy transgressive cake on his Facebook page, he accompanied it with the cheerful caption, “Documentation from my female genital mutilation cake performance earlier today at stockholm moma. This is after getting my vagaga mutilated by the minister of culture, Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth.” You can just feel how much he cares.

Basically, I think this guy is an amoral self-absorbed art twit who’s loading for bear in terms of making a splash on the international art scene. Naked female body + misogyny + racist imagery + cake = career.

But what about the Swedish culture minister? What about all those giggling white people in the picture? What the fuck is wrong with them?

The only explanation I can come up with—apart from incredible callousness, misogyny, and racism, of course—is just the context of the thing. There’s the fact that the cake is supposed to be “art,” and the setting is a modern art museum, and the occasion is World Art Day, and the installation is part of the occasion, and the artist is right there doing his performance bit, and the culture minister’s speech is about how art has the right to be offensive. Plus the fact that people in awkward public situations often smile and laugh to smooth over the awkwardness. So it’s possible that at least some of the people at the event found the cake shocking and offensive, but felt obliged to make nice in public.

On the other hand, nobody in that picture looks like they’re feeling particularly uncomfortable, do they? That’s what’s so freaking weird. The art twittery I can understand (though not condone), and I could understand freezing in public with an awkward smile, but goddamn those Swedes look cheerful. It is beyond bizarre.

As a woman, FGM is one of the most difficult topics for me to even think about. It’s distressing beyond words. And every single woman I know feels the same, regardless of race or ethnicity. If I were presented with a cake like this, even if I knew it was supposed to be “art,” even if I was the fricking Minister of Culture for Sweden supposedly standing up for art, even if it was a public event and there were cameras clicking and I was on the spot to make nice and get through it, there’s just no way. No way in hell.

Maybe they’re all Nazis.

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16 Responses to “How on earth does something like this happen?”

  1. Val says:

    I guess this is when you need a “Men Hate You” hashtag…
    I’m dumbfounded too.

  2. Nina M. says:

    Needless to say, Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth will pay for this episode for the rest of her life, while Makode Linde will make bank off it.

  3. Sameol says:

    Some of the coverage doesn’t make it clear that Makode Linde is male. It would be very interesting to discover how the tenor changes when it’s implied/assumed that he’s female versus when he’s pictured or identified with male pronouns.

  4. Alice Molloy says:

    Also, correct me if wrong; the body shape seems to be that of The Venus of Willendorf, the ancient women’s power symbol.

  5. Violet Socks says:

    The tiny little arms folded over the breasts definitely make it look like the Venus of Willendorf. But who the hell knows what he intended.

  6. LabRat says:

    Yeah, actually that isn’t just a Venus of Willendorf reference, and it makes it a whole bunch more offensive. I really, really hope it sailed over the heads of everyone but Linde.

    The only theory I can come up with is that Africa in general and African female genital mutilation is just so incredibly an abstract sad thing to them rather than an empathetically felt reality that they can.. do… this…

  7. tinfoil hattie says:

    It’s like the difference between Piss Christ at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and Piss Christ at the White House Easter Egg Roll

    OMIGOD, when I am president we are having Piss Christ at the Easter Egg Roll. FOR SURE.

    Re: “who the hell knows what he intended” – perhaps Makode Linde is one of those stupid men who equates “men want sex and they think they have a right to it from any woman they want” with “women have such unfair “sexual power” over men! You know, because Venus of Willendorf’s “power” MUST come from her sexuality that men deserve, amirite?

    This whole thing is to puke. WHY THE FUCK IS EVERYONE LAUGHING? HOW CAN PEOPLE BE SO STUPID AS TO PARTICIPATE IN THIS IN THE FIRST PLACE? Or, to put it another way: WHAT THE HOLY, FUCKING FUCK?

  8. Gayle says:

    “To begin with, Jezebel’s description is factually wrong in a couple of important ways.”

    That goes without saying.

    Maybe the Cultural Minister thought she was supporting “a provocative young artist” or some similar crap.

    The whole thing is grotesque and offensive.

  9. quixote says:

    HUH?

    Whuuuuuuuuut?

    ?

    In Sweden?

    The whole Western world has jumped all the sharks.

  10. blah says:

    ‘HOW CAN PEOPLE BE SO STUPID AS TO PARTICIPATE IN THIS IN THE FIRST PLACE?’ (tinfoil hattie)
    It’s modern art. You go along or you’re a philistine loser and lose the hipster asshole vote.

  11. Violet Socks says:

    I’m kind of surprised that my Scandinavian commenters haven’t weighed in yet. This blog is required reading in Finland, you may recall, and is also strangely popular in Sweden.

    (I don’t mean to put anybody on the spot, and obviously commenting isn’t mandatory.)

  12. Jack says:

    “In Sweden?”

    Sweden has one of the highest rape rates in the world, and the highest in Europe. Part of that has to do with reporting, but a lot of it has to do with the fact that Swedish law and activism occurred in response and reaction to the high prevalence of rape in a nation whose biggest contribution to world culture was a term which means “to go a’raping and pillaging.”*

    * – viking

    One source: http://www.thelocal.se/19102/20090427/

  13. RKMK says:

    FWIW, my friend directed me to this link when I was all “O.O”: http://hyperallergic.com/50140/controversial-afro-swedish-artist-speaks-its-a-disturbing-picture-but-its-also-a-disturbing-subject/

    (My kneejerk reaction is still “O.O”.)

  14. tallbacka says:

    I don’t think there is much to add about this. The cake is offensive and the Minister for Culture and Sport should have refused to take part in the spectacle.

    She has issued a non-apology on the cabinet’s home page saying basically that her job is to promote art and freedom of expression and that art has a right to provocative but she is sorry if anyone has misunderstood her participation in the artwork. In non-official statements she has also said she felt “tricked” and “kidnapped” and some art critic said she did not want to appear pro-censorship at an event celebrating provocative art and where “the artists´ fight against the censors” was one of the topics.(obviously appearing racist was not as big a concern)

    Both she and the organization KRO(konstnärernas riksorganisation = National Organization of Artists) who were behind this exhibit (a celebration of the 75th anniversary of the organization) stress that Makode was chosen as one of the artists because he has for a long time worked to fight racism and xenophobia with his art. The artwork consisted of several parts and the cake was only one of them. I think the other parts work – the idea that you can fight racism with exaggerated caricatures of stereotypes is not that unreasonable.

    But the cake part is a massive failure. It looks more like a celebration of FGM than criticism and it feels out of place since FGM has never been part of common western racist stereotypes of Africans. Today the Riksföreningen stoppa kvinnlig könsstympning(National association to stop FGM) wrote an op ed in a major Swedish daily criticizing the work and said that it does nothing to help their cause. I don’t understand Makodes reasoning in this at all. Maybe Violet is right and it is mostly about getting attention for himself. When you’re dealing with such a sensitive topic as FGM you have to be extra careful so that your work can not be misinterpreted.

    Reactions in Sweden have been critical, several anti-racism organizations have criticized the work and there have been demands for the minister’s resignation. One of Sweden’s most prominent modern artists cancelled a planned donation to the museum in protest. The “cake-affair” has in some ways been drowned out by the enormous Breivik coverage. Not too many reactions from the general public, I think partly because blackface as a phenomenon is not known here(before the 60s there were hardly any blacks here at all and today they are less than 1%) and a string of highly published performance artist controversies have contributed to an feeling of “modern artists do anything to get attention”. Many people also seem to believe that a black person can’t be racist(or that if something racist is done by a black person it’s not as serious)

    The only ones who have been positive about it are the artist and KRO, the photographer said that everyone(including her) was really uncomfortable yet no one stopped it or showed publicly that they were which makes it a brilliant gigantic success.(no I don’t get her reasoning either)

  15. Carmonn says:

    If they’re like most museum goers, they’re probably excited to get their pictures in the paper, they don’t have much of idea what the work is about (and don’t particularly care to delve too deeply into it), and they think that it can’t be racist because a) it’s in the museum and b) the artist is Afro-Swedish.

    If Makode Linde had been smart, he would have claimed that he’s trying to bring attention to FGM by making a point about how stereotyping leads to dehumanization. Even though there are almost as many men as women in the audience, the “old white women” theme is getting play and he would have been on safe ground with that. Instead, he keeps getting himself in trouble and coming off more shallow with each attemot to explain. I don’t think anyone is going to accept that he has to treat subjects with humor because they’re just too painful for him otherwise.

  16. Yasmin says:

    Isn’t this actually more misogynistic than racist? I mean this happens to girls in Africa because they are girls not because of the race. I hate how all the outrage on many sites carrying this news is about the racism, all the headlines say racist or racism but nobody indicates the misogyny except for this blog. I guess I hate how sexism and misogyny gets ignored and when the real bigotry here is misogyny, I hate how racism is the focus.