On impulse, I’m inclined to feel a genital mutilation cake made for the unveiling of a exhibit on female circumcision in Africa was created in poor taste. I’m certainly not alone in feeling this way. In the wake of this controversy involving the Swedish Ministry of Culture, there has been many a rebuke. Indeed, the museum housing the exhibit had to be evacuated due to a bomb threat. To see a dark Black body–replete with a red velvet center and a performance artist head–displayed in this way, being carved up and offered up to ravenous spectators makes the blood boil quickly.
Upon first sight, I reacted quickly and angrily, dashing off an open letter to the Swedish culture ministry, wondering who thought such a cake was a good idea, and immediately passed it along to my editor here. I was confident she would approve of the approach and quick turn-around.
She told me to dig deeper, to explore the elements of the storm further, especially the motivations of the cake’s creator, artist Makode Aj Linde (who is a person of color, if that makes a difference to you). The directive forced me to cool down and deal with this troubling confection and the meaning of subject, audience and context.
So, I considered Linde’s perspective on his work, which often features what we would consider stereotypical Blackface caricature–garishly white eyes, red lips and white teeth–painted onto incongruous images–European busts, animals, etc. The cake and performance, he says, were meant to be provocative commentaries on the West’s view of African female circumcisions. Stifling my impulse to tell him exactly why he failed, I forged on to watch the video of the event and had my mind blown.
Linde nailed it. He absolutely nailed it.
Instead of sucking my teeth, I watched, listened and considered the artistic objective. As the scene unfolded, I remembered a bit of Shakespeare:
All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.
I saw something powerful and heartbreaking unfold in this gallery. The celebrants and revelers at the exhibit were merely unwitting–but abundantly willing–performers in Linde’s play. The cake was not for their delight. The wails he let forth as the cake was cut into was not for their amusement. Linde wasn’t enjoying the moment, making light of a brutal history; indeed, his presence served to shame them, to shame them for partaking in something so distasteful as a cake representing the countless girls and women who have been brutalized. They should have been outraged. They should have been disgusted, haranguing for the cake and the artist to be removed immediately. But they weren’t. Rather than recoil in horror and outrage at the sight of such a cake or the sound of such screams, the men and women in attendance–The West–ate and chitchatted and snapped pictures of the spectacle. As Minister of Culture Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth cut into the cake’s clitoris, she was prompted to whisper to Linde, “your life will be better after this.” And she did.
Ignoring the grotesquery they saw and heard before them, the crowd took what they wanted and passed it around the room. Linde and his cake were merely the exhibit writ large and delicious, treats that signaled an early Halloween and little else. There seemed to be so little reverence for the subject of the exhibit or the man crying out; if there was a stand taken, it has yet to be brought to light. The true outrage in this moment in this moment is not Linde’s cake or performance; it is that no one in that gallery rejected this as utterly reprehensible.
Plates at the ready and shame on standby, they took what they wanted from that enticing Black body, leaving nothing in return.
While I’ve often frowned upon performance art, it is moments like this that remind me how powerful it can be when courageously and properly applied. And believe me, what Linde did took courage. Could I have done that? On stage, in what is the controlled environment of the theater with clearly-defined audience and actors? Sure. In public where those lines are severely blurred? I doubt it. That the Culture Ministry–which I highly doubt was in step with Linde’s intentions–would even agree to such a performance is but a further indictment. This agreement was part of the performance itself and reflects just how much work needs to be done on these matters.
Allowing my blood to cool, I was able to deal with the jarring brilliance of Linde’s commentary on a level that my initial reaction did not. But coming to understand that the artistic intent was not to delight but, indeed, reveal, offered little comfort.
All the world’s a stage. And they all took the cake.