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.
There’s a lot to unpack here. Let’s think about four things.
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.)
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”?