By now, you have likely seen or heard about a controversial performance art piece in Sweden in which male Afro-Swede artist Makode Aj Linde, used blackface and a cake to depict a female genital mutilation (FGM) ceremony before a roomful of delighted White art patrons. The genital area of the cake was cut by Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth the country’s Minister of Culture. According to Racialious, she has since suggested that she was mislead by Linde: “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.”
Linde had this to say of his performance: “It’s sad if people feel offended, but considering the low number of artists in Sweden who identify as Afro-Swedish, I find it sad that the Afro-Swedish Association haven’t followed my artistry and do not understand what my work is about.”
The reaction across my social networks was swift and largely one-note: “OMG, look at these racist White people!” When Jonathan Pitts-Wiley pitched me a short response piece he’d drafted, I told him that though it was well written, I think this performance demands a bit more examination and thought. He took his time, watched footage of the show and returned with this. Meanwhile, I did the same, dismissing my immediate anger and instead attempting to truly understand just what had transpired. I think Jonathan’s take is smart and thoughtful and nuanced, but alas…I came to a very different conclusion.
Am I horrified by the image of the giggling White folks eating cake and having fun? Sure. Am I surprised? Not at all. Sweden, like many European nations, has a history of anti-African racism. Do I think this same performance could have played out with similar results with certain US audiences? Absolutely. When it comes to racism, we are a glass-house nation that loves to throw stones. We haven’t even effectively engaged our post-slavery issues yet. The murder of a Black teen by an seemingly racist vigilante is a polarizing controversy, as opposed to an open and shut case. America eats Black bodies every single day.
That doesn’t mean I don’t give Lijeroth and her buddies all the ire they deserve. I think there should be consequences for some of the people who reveled in this performance and I’m absolutely horrified at everyone who happily munched on that cake. Yet, my greater questions are for the artist.
Did Linde consult any actual Black women in preparing this performance? Did he consider how painful that image would be for Black women, particularly survivors of FGM? Why has he spoken of this as an “African” issue, as if Africa is the size of Detroit or as if every nation in the world’s largest continent participates in female circumcision? Was he really trying to inspire global action against FGM, or did he use a Black female plight to shock himself to worldwide notoriety? Why did he use blackface, the very same image of Blackness that has been used to justify inhumane treatment of Black people? Why make a caricature of a Black women to humanize Black women in the face of her dehumanization?
Far too often, Black men and White women feel emboldened to speak to or on issues regarding Black women from a place of authority that does not actually exist. And while they may have seen their attempts as helpful, the old cliché holds true: the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Alas, as the week goes on, the defenses will continue. As surely as a George Zimmerman can find a Black friend to defend him, surely Lijeroth will have someone who can sing her anti-racism praises. Linde may have a Black woman or two waiting in the wings to explain how he really just cared about us and wanted to highlight our suffering (to be fair, I can’t say for certain he didn’t have a Black woman involved with this project; yet, it would beg the question ‘why didn’t you have a woman do the performance?)
Black women and our bodies have suffered greatly all across the world. I appreciate Linde for calling attention to this particular assault on our lives, but I feel that his execution was all wrong. Our suffering is not to be treated lightly and by attempting a ‘shocking’ assault on people’s consciousness, he created an image that became an assault in and of itself.
Jamilah Lemieux is the News and Lifestyle Editor for EBONY.com. Follow her on Twitter: @jamilahlemieux