Makode Linde–the ‘Swedish Cake’ artist–explains himself


“It’s a self-portrait. It’s not meant to represent anything, except me.” Makode Linde seems more bemused than irritated when we discuss the huge, worldwide storm that his cake has stirred. “People are talking about this in Africa, in South America,” he says, “there are so many different interpretations of what it means, and I don’t want to take away any of that. But it also really seems to have driven all the trolls out of the woodwork.” Strange to think that before last weekend, it was just another Afromantic.

Afromantics’ is Makode Linde’s line of artworks that use the blackface figure that has now become so infamous. The name, he says, reflects on the romanticized, supposedly positive stereotype of the happy, grinning ‘pickaninny’ (a caricature of black children) that appears on all the artworks, and is meant to show the connection between those stereotypes and the more vicious ones, all connected in the same system of oppression.

Each Afromantic is based on taking an item from Eurocentric art or popular culture and painting stereotypical blackface on top of it. “The outlines, the specific features of the faces of these items are completely obscured,” Makode Linde says, “their character is completely removed, and they have this new, supposedly ‘African’ character imposed on them.” It’s an almost painfully symbolic reproduction of the process of Othering, diverse individuals being forcibly assigned a simplistic shared identity.

When Pontus Raud of the Swedish Artists’ Organisation called in asking for the cake, Makode knew he wanted to make it an Afromantic. (Though he did briefly toy with the idea of making a chocolate Naomi Campbell.) Since the cake was to go on display in a museum, he wanted to work with something from the Eurocentric discipline of Art History, and so chose the body of the ultimate canonical classic, Venus from Willendorf, the supposed origin of a story that has always excluded African or African-bodied voices. (An accusation subtly imparted by the painted blackface.) The faceless Venus was also ideal to paint in the stereotypical looks of the Afromantic series, and to make the work more brutal and more relational he included himself as the head.

Marianne Lindberg De Geer took the picture that made the cake known, worldwide. She is also an artist, one of Sweden’s best known, and like Makode Linde’s, her work is based on identity and identification, the experience of being Othered, in her case as a woman. (In one recurring work, both like and fundamentally unlike Makode Linde, she enters into the experience of others by painting her own face over stereotypical depictions.) She knew something was about to happen, and readied her camera, pushing herself through the crowd. When the Culture minister started cutting the cake, she snapped “perhaps 25 or 30” pictures, and caught the second time the minister leans over to feed the artist, “like a mother feeding a crying child.”

“It all happened so quickly. It was horrifying, so aggressive, the scream,” Marianne Lindberg De Geer says. And for almost an hour, Makode Linde screams and screams as person after person cuts into the cake. People laugh. Some react negatively and back away. Some try to check if Makode Linde is okay, lying there in his cramped box. Some cut with happy abandon. Everyone seems to have a different reaction in the room. But no-one tried to stop it. “We were all complicit,” Marianne Lindberg De Geer says.

Me too, snapping away. We were all assured that it was alright, that it was art, that this was part of the performance. It was like the Milgram electric shock experiment, no-one stepped in to prevent the simulated pain from happening. I think it was a very good work of art. I feel I should probably apologise to Makode for ruining his work by spreading that picture.

The idea that it was a conspiracy meant to trap the Culture minister, as we first suggested in our first take on Linde’s performance, can probably be abandoned. None of the people I speak to–Makode Linde, Marianne Lindberg De Geer or organiser Pontus Raud–claim they knew what the other parties were going to do. Marianne Lindberg De Geer does say, though, that she probably wouldn’t have sold the picture if it hadn’t been the intensely disliked, neo-liberal Culture minister in it. “She has tried to force us all into becoming entrepreneurs,” Marianne Lindberg De Geer says, “so I decided to try to boost my income as a freelancer at her expense.”

Lying in the box was extremely uncomfortable for Makode Linde. Both physically and emotionally. “It was an experience of total objectification,” he says.

Imagine people standing half a metre from your head and talking about you as if you weren’t there. As a relational artwork, it was an artistic experience for me too.

It’s something he has experimented with before.

For a party that was also a relational performance last year, he painted twenty of his friends in blackface, and charted their reactions during the party and afterwards, when many had drunkenly forgotten their make-up and were surprised at random strangers attacking them in the street. Everyone’s experience of being inside the blackface (he describes it as if it were a shell, an item of clothing) was different, and in a way it was an artwork directed at them.

They got to experience race in a way they hadn’t before. And the aim was also to get them to experience what it’s like being Makode Linde. All of the Afromantics, whatever you think of it, are to a certain extent his self-portrait.

People always want to put me in a box. I’ve got a white mother and an African father. Whites always think of me as black. Blacks seem to always think of me as white. The media calls me Afro-Swedish, but I didn’t know what that was until last week! People seem to have trouble with the idea that you can identify with traits of both black and white, and with both male and female gender roles. There’s this categorization that frustrates me incredibly.

When I mention that he’s being accused of not being in conversation with the African diaspora, of only talking to whites, he replies:

Well, I am white. [Long pause.] And black. But I seem to have to be constructed as one of two. I don’t talk about black experience, I don’t know very much about what the ‘genuine African’ experience, in quotations, is like. I’ve grown up in the privileged inner city. What is my supposed group? Inner city mulattoes? They’re a handful. I’m not joking when I say I know them all … and they support me!

“One reason I do this,” Makode Linde adds, “is because there’s no obvious correspondence between who I am and what people think I’m supposed to be.” Thus the focus on the stereotypes, on what he talks about as “the prejudice cloud”: a collection of traits his supposed blackness, that he doesn’t feel he shares, is meant to impart upon him. That includes the blackface, the idea of “rhythm in the blood”… traits that “his race” are supposed to have in common. “And one thing no-one has mentioned about the cake,” he says, “are the neck rings. They’re not even African, they’re Burmese! And yet they just get assumed as an ‘African thing’. They’re part of the prejudice cloud too, people don’t reflect. I’ve got nothing to do with these things, nothing, and yet people expect me to relate to them.”

That, too, was the reason female genital mutilation (FGM) became part of the cake. Someone brought up the angle when they discussed the fact that the cake was to be cut up, and Makode Linde jumped on it. “It’s another part of the prejudice cloud. The idea of savages mutilating their own people.” And yet, it’s become the focus of so much of the debate surrounding the piece. “The media asks me what I think of FGM,” Makode Linde says, “what am I supposed to say? I’m against it, I tell them of course.” And suddenly it has become the aim of the artwork.

Perhaps that’s unfortunate. There is what seems to be a highly legitimate feminist critique of the piece, focused on the symbolic cutting-up of the woman and the voicelessness of female African artists, that gets wrapped up in a wider discussion about the construction of FGM that Makode Linde seems to know or care little about. The Kenyan artist Shailja Patel’s much circulated article, for instance, has many valid points, but there’s a definite sense that she and the artist are speaking at complete cross purposes. I pose the questions that Shailja Patel, in her piece at Pambazuka News, derived from theorist Jiwon Chung, to Makode Linde and his replies are probably illustrative of this:

Cui bono? Who benefits?
“The debate benefits! If female genital mutilation is the topic that should be discussed, well, it seems to have been brought up a lot. Look at Google Trends, the search volume has increased steadily since the debate started.”

How do those whose suffering / body / experience is depicted feel? Do they feel they’ve been done justice?
“The experience depicted is mine, and I do.”

Are you speaking for them (because you have a voice, and they don’t), or are they speaking for you, because what they have to say is so much more compelling than you?
“I speak for myself. Who am I supposed to speak for? I don’t represent anyone. I think the idea that an entire group that I supposedly belong to speaks with the same voice is kind of racist, too. It’s ironic that supposed anti-racists seem to be lumping people together like this.”

Are you attributing clearly (giving clear credit)?
“I’m not. I thought art was supposed to be speaking for itself. Someone on Facebook thought I should put in a disclaimer, explaining the history of blackface and why I use it, but I think if people were really interested in my art they’d think it out anyway.”

Are you dialectical?
“Look, I’ve made over 40 interviews since this thing happened. I’ve never talked about my art this much before.”

Is your ‘I’ a ‘we’? Is your ‘we’ an ‘I’?
“No. My I is an I.”

If their suffering were to disappear, would you be truly happy? Or would you have to look for something else onto which to glom your dissatisfaction?
“I think it’d be fantastic if all of these stereotypes, this prejudice cloud disappeared. If this sort of thing could be presented, and no-one would even get the reference…then I could concentrate on making music.”

Do you belong, do you truly claim solidarity with the suffering — or do you do it only when it fits in with your concerns and schedule? How do you support them outside your art?
“If there’s anything I don’t tolerate, it’s racism and homophobia. My whole life I’ve been constantly a victim of racism, homophobia and transphobia. It doesn’t seem to matter how I define myself, people always do it for me. The types of categorisation, the types of attacks, seem to be the same, no matter what kind of prejudice.”


It’s as if both Makode Linde and his feminist critics are speaking the same language of power, stereotype, intersectional oppression, and yet they don’t seem to be connecting at all. For instance, when Makode Linde raises an issue with the way anti-racism groups act, it’s one that feminists often raise too and that would be right at home in one of the articles:

I realise it’s difficult to speak without resorting to categories like ‘black’, ‘white’, ‘male’ and ‘female’. It may be difficult to demonstrate oppression without them. But at the same it’s so close-minded not to realize that placing people against their wishes in these categories is the same sort of valuation process racists use. Let people define themselves as they like. If I say I’m a white woman, let me be.

It’s no surprise Marianne Lindberg De Geer, who is one of Sweden’s most famous feminist artists, talks along a similar track.

The more I work with identity and identification, the more I realise that people are essentially the same, that you can identify across groups. I think it’s fantastic that Makode as a man takes on the role of a woman in this way, I don’t see the problem at all. Makode is an Other too.

(He really is, in multiple, intersecting ways. You should listen to him talk about having dreadlocks and meeting homophobic Rastas.)

The peculiar context of Sweden’s race relations is another thing that seems to strike a wedge between Makode Linde and his international critics. As several articles rightly point out, the reaction would have been considerably different had the cake gone on display in the United States for example. Some would argue that a nostalgic understanding of their own White goodness makes Swedes blind to racism (hence the audience response), but Makode Linde has another take, too:

We don’t have the same history here in Sweden of slavery, of colonialist oppression. Our colonies were barely there. We don’t have the ‘guilt quilt’ big colonialist nations have, and yet we’re constantly asked to relate to the same issues of slavery and segregation that, say, the United States does. It’s as if our race relations are imported from the US, and the whole issue becomes almost a meta- or quasi-discussion.

Perhaps this is the reason blackface passes with less resistance in Sweden. But it’s probably also the reason that institutions that think of themselves as non-racist don’t deal with their own prejudice, because the general image is that Sweden doesn’t have much racism. And yet, looking at the actual situation, there’s staggering discrimination in healthcare, schools, in the justice system, in the labour market. And in higher education, as brought home with characteristic irony by Makode Linde in another of his artworks, where he comments on exposure, class and the over-representation of white students at the University College of Arts, Crafts and Design by baking oat balls in different colours.


He staged it at the school, and people laughed, until laughter “got stuck in their throats” once the realisation set in. “I think it’s a very Swedish approach,” says Makode Linde. “And a very effective one. Here it’s always been considered strange to take yourself completely seriously. Gays and Jewish people, too, have been using humour about racism and homophobia as a defense mechanism for a long time. In stand-up comedy, the sort of thing I do would pass unnoticed. Yet in the art world, joking about certain things is considered taboo, even if the intent is not racist. If there’s any problem I have with justice movements, it’s their lack of this sense of humour.” That, too, is perhaps an aspect of the cake that translates less well.

And yet Makode Linde has relished the debate and the different angles it has brought up. “People have so many interesting points of view on this,” he says. “The debate really seems to have benefitted, and even stuff like other videos of mine and other artists working on similar themes have been given a boost. That’s why I don’t buy the argument that I’m silencing other artists, it’s not like there’s one-–sorry for this one!-–attention cake that I’ve taken too large a chunk out of.” And he intends to keep working with the same themes, and the new things raised by the cake: “I’m following it all closely. And as a free artist I reserve the right to reinterpret my work and spin off new things in the future.”

* Johan Palme blogs as Birdseeding.

Comments

comments

13 Comments
  1. Just because the artist and the feminist critics are “speaking at cross purposes” doesn’t mean the feminist critiques are invalid. Especially as the artist doesn’t seem to care about the voices of women who have actually undergone FGM, as far as I can tell from the interviews he has given.

  2. Really fantastic article. I think it was really important to bring the two conversations together (the feminist critique and those supporting the artist and his intentions). To be honest the discussions and theorising around the cake incident have fascinated me. I both agree with, and am uncomfortable with the idea that Linde does not have the right to speak for African women affected by FGM. As startledoctopus has pointed out, Linde says “I don’t talk about black experience, I don’t know very much about what the ‘genuine African’ experience”, so is he appropriating African women’s experiences by doing a piece (sorry) on FGM? Or has FGM simply become part of the “prejudice cloud”. One thing that has not been part of this discussion is how our understanding of FGM has very much been shaped by white feminist understanding of it. This is beautifully laid out in Obioma Nnaemeka’s paper “if Female Circumcision did not exist, western feminism would have invented it”

    1. What is the “prejudice cloud” around FGM?
      I don’t see it? Do you really?

      Feminism have existed over 200 years, and we have been fighting, and ARE fighting our own battleas against opression towards women in years, in generations – and we still are in he middle of those fight right now. Where have you been if you did’t notice???

      If any cloud exist, they are in those countrys that still practice FGM.

      That is a reality.
      This cake seem to generate more stupidity, and obviously even more ignorance. This is a painful proceedure that happens in around 20 countrys in the middle of the Africa and in a few other places. It is exactly what it is, and it’s not helping any victims of this in thos countrys, if some people in West are feeling better by having intellectual ignorant discussion about femal opression in general. Saying it’s not just about FGM or in Africa!? I think that is one of the worst actually. And again women are involved ithemself in that opression of them self – also common when it come opression against women.

      Whats the point, what is new here? Nothing that I can see

      I think the prejudice is in the cake it self, and probably the in the artist.
      And that ignorance had obviously been spread around now.

      1. Why should WE discuss FGM???
        It’s not our problem No, I don’t think so.

        It’s not our battle or our responsibility to convince the people who beleive in this tradition somewhere far a way in another culture, on another continent?

        Is it really Makode Lindes battle? I don’t think so eighter :(

        I really think it had the opposite effect. The people who genuine care about this issues,
        the ones that really try to make a change, and are doing somthing about the problem are very offended.

        They don’t need a Swedish young man to ridicul this problem, and pretend he want to say something, when he have no insight no connection to this issue what so ever. It’s just something he happend to use mostly to create somethimg that could provoke.

        Here a woman saying: “Fight your own business”:

        a representant from ‘Rage Against Racism :

  3. At first I didn’t really get beyond the idea of the cake as being rather grotesque, but after reading this article I can see how this art-work is still grotesque but also epitomizes the act of consuming the black body. The act of cutting into the cake, eating it clearly relates to engorging the Other..but then also having that Other masticate upon itself. The power in this piece seems to lie in the hands of the cake cutter. She carefully controls consumption. Repping for the consumed, I say Venus should scream louder.

    1. Ha ha ha :) This is really interesting to see how people try so hard to find some explanation. The will for doing that seem to be stronger than just analizing what is really there

      It tells me something else. As you could read in the interview were he artist said he has no connection to the symbols that he used. Obvisoly you neighter. Therefore you can’t understand the message. You can’t see why is disturbing to so many, and problematic because it’s made by ignorande and its spreading ignorance.

      In general anyone could put together symbols picked from some painful history without understanding anything of the impact, or have any clue of what that the end message will be.
      The people who know the symbols, who lived them, they see. The ignorant listen to ignorant and then ignorance will be even more spread in a huge cloud of ignorance

  4. i dont know bout yall ,,but all i see is an artist lookin for attention .. and he got it .job well done !! At the right moment ,,right minister ,,right black cake ,,right camera angle ,,, timeing is everything ..
    then i feel all this race talk is garbage ..i see him more as a victim of race ,,doesnt really know where he belongs too …WHY ,,cause the truth is he´s always gonna be black ,,and if he doesnt know that yet well hmmm

  5. I just had to copy this comment from another blog:
    crunkfeministcollective.wordpress.com/2012/04/19/bodies-have-histories-musing-on-makode-linde-and-that-cake/#comment-9351

    I really think this comment below by Malin was right to the point and more aware and intelligent than the article by Palme above:

    “April 21, 2012 at 7:39 PM #

    Since “Cakegate”, the black-face-cake-female-genital-mutilation-performance by artist Makode Linde, erupted in Sweden at the beginning of this week, I’ve spent some time following it in media and in various discussions both on- and offline: there are offended Swedes who are demanding that Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth, the minister of culture who so skillfully administered the cake-clitoris-cutting, resign. Others, such as one of the organizers, KRO (the veneered national organization for Swedish artists), says in a statement that in a free society “we have to be able to handle art that is critical”. People already familiar with Linde’s art, including the artist himself, claim that the performance is taken out of context and misunderstood.
    So far though, I had yet to read a thorough analysis of the actual performance that took place at this event – that is, until I found this blog. I too, feel that the artist is out on thin ice, because there’s a lot more going on than the cutting and gorging of a racist cake. It may not ever be possible to entirely grasp the complex web of history, culture, art, several kinds of social stereotypes, and local as well as international politics, that informs Cakegate, but it wouldn’t be right not to try. I’m taking a stab at it.

    In a brief interview with Linde on Hyperallergic.com, the artist is quoted as saying: “If it is something that Americans take serious [it] is postcolonialism and slavery and ‘not going there’ and making a bad joke about it. In Sweden, we don’t have the same slave trade history.” … ” but [for] Afro-Swedes [we] look at it as one more degree removed.” It’s a reasonable claim: Sweden, like every country, has its own specific history and culture, and learned history is very different from lived history. So it’s now clear that the artist is using a borrowed visual language; the black-face is virtually without any specific national past in Sweden, a country with no history of African slaves. One can only assume that this is a conscious choice by the artist.

    In the same interview, however, it becomes rather clear that Linde doesn’t understand how highly charged the black-face stereotype is, as we go on to learn that he “…doesn’t understand the fixation that commenters have on the white figures all around and he seems legitimately surprised by the aggressiveness of commenters towards the audience. I think it is wrong to call it racist because they are white women and I’m the only black person there, he says.”
    Reading this, I can’t help but wonder: if your art is about race, how can you possibly use the iconic black-face and at the same time completely overlook the ethnicity of your audience? To me, this is just as nuanced as making a performance about guns at the NRA Headquarters without acknowledging the surroundings.

    To complicate matters further, the artist claims that this piece is really about bringing attention to female genital mutilation. OK, fine, but why the black-face then? Is FGM really an issue of race? No. As the term itself implies, it is a strict gender issue: female genital mutilation, peoples. To continue with the analogies, I find this approximately as thought-through as making a performance about Chinese foot binding with figures wearing yarmulkes.

    This is just skimming the surface of the issues with this performance, of course. Plenty can be said of the Minister of Culture who initially claimed “being tricked”, and who thereby represents herself as a government lackey without any individual responsibility. Is it really too much to ask that she stop, look, and ask a few counter-provocative questions, before cutting the clitoris off the screaming cake? Apparently so.

    Making controversial art that provokes is absolutely fine by me and I think it’s fantastic when art actually reaches beyond its own little insular world and serves a greater purpose. But controversy by itself doesn’t guarantee any kind of thinking. Making art that is more than a one-liner and that succeeds in raising difficult and/or political questions is very difficult, and demands strong analytical and critical faculties. It seems that both the artist and the audience at this event failed to do much critical thinking at all.

    It is this naïveté that I find so unnerving – particularly when given the protective explanation that it is “a strain of Swedish humor that is very dark and cynical”.
    The only part about this performance that is dark and cynical is the utter ignorance of its participants and their collective self-congratulatory satisfaction with themselves as champions of freedom of expression: while being heroes in their own eyes, they miss a golden opportunity to let a piece of performance art ignite an important debate about race, identity, and representation. The disappointing outcome of the debacle is of course that the debate never gets to where it supposedly was intended to go: to bring attention to the girls who have their genitals mutilated and their lives ruined as a result of it.”

    (…)

    ” I think that my argument matters in this situation only because the artist clearly is giving himself the right to represent anyone who is black simply because HE is black.
    In other words: he’s essentially appropriating art by artists like Adrian Piper but without understanding the nuances of her work – and this is what I call naïve (and also understand as the “innocence” you’re addressing in your response): the inability of the artist, OR the audience, OR Swedish media in general, to grasp this big problem of representation.
    This, unfortunately, is how race is addressed in Sweden, where people like to say they live in “the most equal country in the world”. I grew up there and have many times been accused of having become “Americanized” when I have wanted to have a nuanced conversation about race and representation. My only conclusion is that if you’re so on top of the world, you simply don’t have to question your own actions – even the the whole world reacts with shock to it.”

    1. I think the point is not that race is relevant to the construction of FGM but that the idea of FGM is relevant to the construction of race – which, since the piece is not about FGM, is probably more relevant. And he quite clearly doesn’t even vaguely try to claim representation of anyone except himself. There’s a lot of conjecture in that comment that seems to contradict what the artist is actually saying.

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