Wheels within wheels: an African-Swedish artist, Makode Aj Linde, mounts an installation piece whose theme appears to be female genital mutilation (FMG), and then faces a firestorm of protests that his work is racist. The participation of the Swedish Minister of Culture has led to calls for her resignation.
“In our view, this simply adds to the mockery of racism in Sweden,” Kitimbwa Sabuni, spokesperson for the National Afro-Swedish Association (Afrosvenskarnas riksförbund) told The Local.
“This was a racist spectacle.”
…”According to the Moderna Museet, the ‘cake party’ was meant to problematize female circumcision but how that is accomplished through a cake representing a racist caricature of a black woman complete with ‘black face’ is unclear,” Sabuni said in a statement.
The Minister, meanwhile, defends herself:
…”I understand quite well that this is provocative and that it was a rather bizarre situation,” she said.
“I was invited to speak at World Art Day about art’s freedom and the right to provoke. And then they wanted me to cut the cake.”
And here, while it looks like she’s ducking responsibility, she may simply be suggesting that a more productive dialogue might be had with the artist himself:
However, Adelsohn Liljeroth said the National Afro-Swedish Association’s anger should be directed at the artist, not at her, claiming the situation was “misinterpreted”.
“He claims that it challenges a romanticized and exoticized view from the west about something that is really about violence and racism,” she said.
The spokeperson for Afrosvenskarnas riksförbund is unimpressed:
But the minister’s defence of her actions rang hollow for Sabuni.
“It’s extremely insulting for the minister to claim that we’ve somehow ‘misunderstood’ racism,” he said.
I’ve quoted at length to reveal the multiple layers of irony in both the installation and its many attendant discourses.
The first point to note is that the once-pristine notion of “identity politics” founders upon reefs like these. Even when the essentialism in the concept is whittled down simply to the privileging of “shared experiences,” the ethnicity of the artist here renders it problematic. Of course, any member of a racialized minority can for all sorts of reasons offend other members of the same group—minorities are not monoliths. But there is no obviously contrarian position taken here.
Secondly, it is entirely permissible for someone not in the group specified to offer an account of the installation, as I intend to do. As a member of the unracialized majority in Canada, I can’t tell either the artist or Sabuni not to connect this event to the racism that they themselves have encountered, nor will I question Sabuni’s account of his perceptions. He has experienced what he has experienced, and he feels what he feels.
But there is no absolute frame, no privileged context for the work of art in question nor indeed for any work of art. There is only a series of accounts. The Minister of Culture speaks of freedom and the right to provoke (then does a “wuzn’t me,” having her cake and eating it too). Sabuni objects to the “racist caricature” of a Black woman. The artist himself challenges the notion of the exotic, and confronts racism as well: his own head forms part of the transitory sculpture.
Third, the enclosed nature of traditional art—frames, museums, the artist’s vision and intentions, the studio—here gives way to something much wider, in which artist(s), artifact, audience, videos and phototographs of the event, critics, location, materials, etc., are all part of a work with no obvious boundaries.
In this instance we have before us a deliciously (no pun intended) ironic construction. The theme of FGM, a phenomenon at best superficially understood in the West*, is for Makode Aj Linde only a means to an end.
He makes an installation piece of himself, at once a living cake and a racist caricature (it’s his own head), and invites guests to eat it—which they do, laughing. The Minister of Culture herself was asked to cut the cake, in the genital area, and did so, saying (in what was likely scripted), “Your life will be better like this.” The artist then screamed in mock-agony, and continued to do so. The reactions of the audience in the short video clip above are in fact an essential part of his work.
The artist juxtaposes the explicit Western reaction to FGM with the reactions to his piece, not a thing but a process in which a caricatured Black woman is mutilated and eaten. The references to colonialism here are unmistakeable. Linde brilliantly recapitulates its bloody legacy, including the polite society that lived at the point of that pyramid of brutal oppression and exploitation.
That same excruciating dissonance is demonstrated here. Just as the lives of millions upon millions of Black Africans were metaphorically fed to the fastidious, “civilized” colonial overlords, the practice of FGM itself is “consumed” by people in the First World, fascinated by the horror and by means of which their prejudices about the Dark Continent and its inhabitants are reinforced. And in a Swedish art museum they laugh, chatter and eat, against the backdrop of the artist’s cries.
The installation turns out, then, to be less about FGM than about the civilized First World people who talk about FGM. Linde’s living sculpture exposes a truth far less palatable than the “flesh” put on display to be eaten, in itself a sardonic reversal of the African-as-cannibal meme. Through his indispensable audience, he demonstrates that our almost instinctive reaction to a morally indefensible practice is almost unavoidably tinctured by racism. Food for thought, indeed.
UPDATE: My take on this is shared here. One Swedish artist called the event a “mousetrap.” Indeed!
*FMG is re/presented in the West as a singular atrocity, a particularly brutal expression of patriarchal subjugation. The analysis rarely goes deeper than that: those interested could do worse than read anthropologist Janice Boddy on the subject.