Blackface, Genital Mutilation, and Cake Cutting in Sweden! Do They Add Up to Racism, Sexism, or Art?


Oh, my. We're not sure how we missed this story out of Sweden last week (which makes that country's Girl With The Dragon Tattoo read like Cinderella in comparison), but thanks to Channing Kennedy and Jorge Rivas at Color Lines, it came screaming at us this Monday morning.

So here's what appears to be, at first glance, something of a simple question:

When you combine someone painting themselves dark in blackface, putting their blackened face at the head of a cake made in the shape of a woman's body, then have someone else perform a female circumcision on the body and feed the baked-good genitals to the screaming, writhing blackfaced head, what's at play here?

Is it racism, sexism, or art? Or some bizarre combination of all three?

When this happened in Sweden of all places, last week, it turned out to be a not so simple question the more you delve into it.

MakodeLinde560.jpg
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Red velvet cake never looked so obscene!
There's a lot to unpack here. Let's think about four things.

Race
First of all, the artist, Makode Aj Linde, is black (or "Afro-Swedish"). This has seemed to buy him little support or sympathy from the few American outlets which have covered this story. (The Root's headline is "'The 'N--ger Cake' Creator Is Black. So What?" for example.) Then again, in the United States anyway, there is a long history of black people "blacking up" for minstrel shows going back before the Civil War. History has not necessarily judged them kindly. Even when done in modern times for political satire -- as in Spike Lee's 2000 film Bamboozled -- black people are not always off the hook for using this technique. (We can't speak at all about the Afro-Swedish history with blackface -- if there even is one? -- and we sadly know little about the Swedish people in general other than what we've learned through the fictional lenses of Ingmar Bergman and Stieg Larsson.)

Gender
Makode Aj Linde was trying to make a statement about female genital mutilation, it would appear. He may be black, but although he reportedly identifies as queer, he is also seemingly a he and not a she. So any cover he may have hoped for racially in being black in blackface won't translate gender-wise as a man screaming about the mutilation of his labia (represented by what appears to be red velvet cake) by a cake knife.

That lady cutting that cake
The cake cutter is Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth, the Swedish Minister of Culture. She reportedly told Makode, "Your life will be better like this" as she cut into his her the cake's genitals and then fed them to the artist. We don't even really have a minister of culture in the United States, but we think it's safe to assume if, say, Rocco Landesman were to mutilate the genitals of a blackfaced cake before feeding its red velvet labia back to it -- as a bunch of white people looked on, laughing -- his days as the head of the National Endowment of the Arts would be numbered, to put it mildly.

Finally, it's "art"
Makode made the piece as part of World Art Day, seemingly to respond artistically to the issue of female circumcision. Art can inspire. Art can enrage. The American left is often appalled when the right gets up in arms at Andres Serrano for pissing on Christ or Renee Cox forming the Virgin Mary out of elephant dung and chastises them for being anti-religious. Generally speaking, the left believes free speech in art should prevail -- offensive, or not -- even when art receives public funds.

Will the American left stand up for a piece like Makode's being examined, if not endorsed, should someone like a Charles Saatchi ever decide to bring it to the states?

To this writer, the imagery of Makode's cake -- and the reaction to people watching it -- is just jaw-dropping and stunning. We're not sure what to make of it. It's horrifying and hilarious; it's hard to know whether to laugh or to cringe, and the video alone has made us do both involuntarily; it's difficult to watch and impossible to ignore; it makes one's skin crawl. It is, almost, simply unbelievable.

We'll say this, though. Should Makode's installation ever come to New York, it will light the kind of Swedish explosion even Lisbeth Salander couldn't ignite when she set her father on fire. Imagine the reaction Makode would receive at the Studio Museum in Harlem, or at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art in the Brooklyn Museum!

Perhaps Makode's cake would even be served near Judy Chicago's "Dinner Party"?

@steven_thrasher | sthrasher@villagevoice.com



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7 comments
DieVillageVoice
DieVillageVoice

Racism is worse than murder and rape. I'm so glad that the Village Voice is routing out cases of ambiguous racism, and ignoring the hundreds of stories of black on white violence that occur every single day. This old rag really has its priorities straight, that's for sure. 

http://www2.wkrg.com/news/2012...

SlowLiberalDeath
SlowLiberalDeath

OMG! A RACIST CAKE!!! OH NO!!! THAT IS AN OUTRAGE! BUT BLACK ON WHITE VIOLENCE IS NO BIG DEAL, AND THERE"S NO NEED TO WRITE STORIES ABOUT THAT. BLACK ON WHITE VIOLENCE IS NO BIG DEAL, AND IS SOMETHING THAT WE SHOULD IGNORE, LIKE TODAY'S LATEST CASE OF NIGGER VIOLENCE!:

http://www2.wkrg.com/news/2012...RACIST CAKES ARE THE MOST TERRIBLE THING ON EARTH. RACIST CAKES ARE WORSE THAN KILLING INNOCENT PEOPLE. I"M SO GLAD THE WASHED-UP OLD "LIBERALS" AT THE VILLAGE VOICE HAVE THEIR PRIORITIES STRAIGHT!

peacethroughapathy
peacethroughapathy

I agree with burning_plastic. I saw this on HuffPost last week and didn't really understand why people were so offended. The point of the blackface makeup was to make the audience question whether they, subconsciously or not, see people of different races who live far, far away as subhuman. It implies that after hundreds of years of ingrained racism, Western countries still sees people who are native to Africa as a homogenous mass of dark-skinned heathens who practice barbarous rituals. This actually reminds me of that artist who pretended to have killed a dog for "art." He hadn't; he was making the point that people living in the industrialized world will go crazy if they hear an animal has been mistreated, but turn a blind eye to people who are killed in war or suffering from malnutrition. Likewise, when we see a piece like this, we should realize that the horror isn't the blackface, or the cake, or the simulated self-cannibalism. The horror is that women and girls still go through genital mutilation. If this piece makes people talk about the reality rather than a spectacle, then it is successful.

toaster pastry
toaster pastry

This seems to be an effort to be patently offensive above all. While good art can be offensive, there's generally some larger message, or substance that goes along with it.

For example, while the infamous Jesus in a jar of Urine thing was pretty offensive to me, I felt it conveyed a larger message about the appropriation of Christianity and it's installment as a dominant culture in some countries - notably, the US. We dunked christ in the urine when we started selling plastic dolls of him, and trying to put him in science class. Rush Limbaugh dunked christ in urine when he called the LRA a "christian army", etc. The Catholic Church dunked christ in urine by not only continuing to hide pedophiles in it's ranks, but to continue attacking the victims to this day. To me, this speaks to a failing of pop-culture-christ. I'd rather remember Christ as savior and messiah, then Christ via waffles shaped like "white jesus", you know? And I was *properly* offended. Anyone should be offended by pop-culture-jesus.

I've been looking for a similar, broader message in this art-installation thing above. I'm not seeing it. Maybe because I'm not from Sweden. I don't know. It just looks racist, maybe sexist, and generally horrible. I'm not saying there's no message outside of that there. But this is how it speaks to me.

burning_plastic
burning_plastic

What I see is this horrifying scene, because of what is being represented, and a lot of people standing around. It's hard to tell if they are participants or not but it seems like the natural thing for any of them to do would be to ask them to stop. The artist is sort of right about that part. He's exposing the fact that we ignore this problem of "female circumcision." The blackface is a problem. It might be used to make him look less human or more "other." If this was presented more realistically it would have a whole different effect, so the blackface may be a way to put some distance from reality. I do think it's art and the fact that people aren't responding in the correct way is not really the artists problem. I don't think the work succeeds or fails based on how popular it is with the critics or the public.

toaster pastry
toaster pastry

"It's hard to tell if they are participants or not but it seems like the natural thing for any of them to do would be to ask them to stop"

Maybe that's it. Maybe the artist was running game on the participants, in order to subject them to a social experiment. Maybe it's a performance art piece about the depravity of people. If that's the case, maybe the piece is genius. =)

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