Why, yes, that is Sweden’s Minister of Culture cutting into a caricature cake of a naked African woman! And look even more closely: The head is alive. It’s the blacked-up head of Makode Aj Linde, the “performance artist” behind this scene. There’s even a video of him screaming as his “body” is being cut by the other partygoers. (Warning: The video is extremely disturbing.)
When I saw this photo making the rounds on conscious friends’ Facebook walls, I couldn’t find any information behind it. I wasn’t looking for an “explanation,” just backstory. Things like this cannot be explained or justified, just contextualized. Yesterday, I finally got some information.
Linde’s piece was the opening exhibit at World Art Day in the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth, the culture minister, was kicking off the festivities by slicing off the cake’s “clitoris” and feeding it to Linde.
See, it’s a joke, you guys! It’s meant to show how we in the West view female circumcision in Africa. Where in Africa? Doesn’t matter; it’s Africa. This insightful piece is highlighting the common assumption that African women are ritualistically cannibalized by grinning gaggles of white folk.
Except that they aren’t. Or are they? They were that Saturday in Sweden. I agree with the fact that Western views on female genital mutilation (and many other things) are often hopelessly misinformed. But this sort of scandal-mongering display removes the conversation from those it claims to help, and puts the spotlight squarely on the image-maker (see Kony 2012).
Before I go on, I would also like to point out that Makode Aj Linde is a male of color. On his Facebook page, he identifies himself as gender-neutral. I cannot say whether this is Linde’s reality, or a mechanism he employs to relieve himself of certain responsibilities in his artwork. The cynic in me believes it is the latter.
His repertoire, from what I can glean from online galleries, lazily relies on a bank of gollywog-style images. Unlike a talented artist such as Karen Walker, who uses these images in a truly clever and thought-provoking manner, Linde scrapes the gutter for mere shock value. His representation of the already beleaguered black female body in this manner points to a horrific level of self-hatred, combined with a stunning lack of self-awareness.
Liljeroth, who performed the clitoridectomy, is playing mum and dumb on this one. She is trying to shovel all the blame back on Makode: “He claims that it challenges a romanticized and exoticized view from the West about something that is really about violence and racism," she said. "Art needs to be provocative." Well, if one black guy told you this, I guess he speaks for the rest of us. In reality, she needs to heed the calls to step down. As an elected official, she is supposed to have a mind of her own. She is paid to think things through. This displays a massive job-related failure on her part.
Truly provocative art contributes something new and insightful to the conversation. It doesn’t operate simply to remind us why we’re angry. The cake was a fatal collision of male privilege and white privilege. Most insultingly, it masqueraded as a conscious-raising exercise.