You’ve probably seen the photos (trigger warning). On the table is a cake, the naked torso of an African woman rendered in edible red velvet with inky black frosting, connected to the head of a performance artist exaggerated by the make-up of blackface. Participants are bid not only to cut into the cake but to perform a clitoridectomy on the torso with swollen belly, prominent nipples, and conspicuous labia. And if you’ve seen the video with its disturbing audio (again, trigger warning), when one makes the incision, the performance artist arches back with screams of agony, the sounds highlighted by a huge painted-on red mouth and oversized pointy teeth. In the most ubiquitous photos, Swedish Culture Minister Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth is gamely feeding the head, laughing, the background filled with other smiling faces and eager photographers. All are white.
Like many, I find these images racist, repulsive, and anti-woman. But, because this cake was consumed at museum and not, (believe it or not) at a pathetic frat party, and this cake was conceived as performance art, we will discuss further.
Afro-Swedish artist Makode Linde, who is male, made the cake to celebrate World Art Day at the Moderna Museet. Although much of the media reports have stated that the piece of performance art intended to bring awareness to practice of female circumcision, I think it important to note that the theme of the celebration was actually censorship and freedom of speech and did not concern women, race, oppression or female circumcision. Furthermore, in a videotaped interview with Al Jazeera, when asked, “Why did you choose female circumcision as the subject?,” Linde responded,
There are many different entries into this piece and because of the medium, which was cake, the mutilation part of the piece was quite natural because you had to cut it up…Since I’m dealing with prejudice [and] ideas about black identity, the theme for the birthday celebration was censorship and freedom of speech, I think this piece was very appropriate. Because a lot of prejudice that concerns black identity, is that female circumcision is something that is because of oppression against women, and this oppression only takes place in black Africa and so on, but the oppression is one oppression. It’s like its one racism and one oppression against women and homophobia, and takes it different forms in Africa or in Europe or in Sweden or anywhere, so by them labeling oppression to be only female circumcision. I think that’s putting on blindfolds for seeing what oppression really is.
Both Linde and Culture Minister Liljeroth are fending off charges of racism. The African Swedish National Association has called for her resignation. Linde has tried to remind people that he is an anti-racism artist, played the “this is art” card, and tried to explain away the criticism by saying the photos, shared across the Internet, are being taken out of context.
But here’s the problem. An Afro-Swedish black man in black face attaches himself to cake upon which white people perform a clitoridectomy and further mutilation. Yet he describes the piece as not about female genital mutilation (problematic as that would be). Rather it is about the other forms of oppression which go untalked about when people focus on female genital mutilation (FMG). And that’s a generous interpretation. Because what I’m really afraid I hear, is the artist saying that when people say FMG is oppressive, black men are oppressed. And he’s using the bodies of black women and FGM survivors to add shcok value to his message. As Jamilah Lemieux asked at Ebony.com, “Was he really trying to inspire global action against FGM, or did he use a black woman’s plight to shock himself to worldwide notoriety?” (This is the time to remember, ahem, that this was a celebration about freedom of speech and censorship).
Nevertheless, the visual display is virulently anti-woman and Linde hasn’t done anything to correct this impression. And globally, racism and the oppression of women are so intertwined that you can’t have a misogynist display of a black woman, as a black caricature, without it being racist.
Linde’s wrong about a couple of other things too. He may have his own intentions, but the bigger context is the ongoing oppression women of color, and the history of minstrelsy, colonization, and violence against women that his piece ignored. The performance isn’t just the ceremony; it’s also the online pushback that showed that what happened in the museum—from the cake-cutting to the artist’s statement—is not something that can be laughed away.