Swedish Golliwog Cake


By now, it seems, the whole world has seen the picture. The Swedish Minister of Culture, Lena Adelsohn-Liljeroth, has just cut a piece from the crotch of a cake baked in the image of a distorted African body, complete with golliwog red lips and white eyes. Now, laughing heartily, she’s bent forward as if jokingly feeding a piece of the cake to itself. The whole room eggs her along, laughing, snapping photographs, caught up in the moment. It’s a horrific picture, and it has spread like fire on the web. Two days ago it started popping up in the facebook feeds of acquaintances of the artist who made the cake, Makode Linde. Yesterday it was everywhere in Sweden, in the morning peppering the social media with condemnation and trending on twitter; by noon the National Association of Afro-Swedes had demanded the culture minister’s resignation, and media hell broke loose. By evening, it was already spreading past international borders, and overnight it’s gone on to become a huge worldwide talking point, ending up on the BBC, on HuffPo, on Jezebel, Al Jazeera and condemned in no uncertain terms by activists from South Africa to Berlin, outraged at the picture, the artist, the crowd, the minister and their apologists. It has become a powerful photograph indeed. As such, I think it’s worth talking a little on how it came about.

It’s Sunday, April 15th, and at Moderna Museet the swedish Artists Organisation is organising a celebration of World Art Day, as well as celebrating its own 75th birthday. Invited to speak is Lena Adelsohn-Liljeroth, the culture minister, who – it’s worth noting – is reviled by large parts of the art world for her culture-sceptic stance and for previously condemning provocative art in what many see as a kind of censorship. Here’s her chance at patching things up.

A number of artists have been asked to create birthday cakes for the celebration. At some point, Lena Adelsohn-Liljeroth gets asked if she would go ahead and cut the first piece of cake, standard politician fare she thinks, and she agrees. Then she’s told that the cake will be about the limits of provocative art, which is a subject she now carefully treads around, and about female genital mutilation.

The cake is wheeled out and uncovered. The crowd stares, tittering nervously. The culture minister is placed at the crotch end, and starts cutting into the cake – when suddenly the head starts screaming in pain. It’s the artist, Makode Linde, whose own painted head is placed as the head of the cake. The crowd’s tittering erupts in nervous laughter; the uncomfortable humour of the situation, the classic Swedish fear of conflict, triggered by the surprise sound and movement. Lena Adelsohn-Liljeroth tries to play along as best she can in what she sees as a “bizarre” situation, reciprocating the laughter.

And on the other side of the cake, placed in the narrow space in front of a glass wall, stands one of the minister’s fiercest critics, visual artist and provocateur Marianne Lindberg De Geer, camera at the ready. And she snaps pictures of the whole series of events, as the minister is egged into doing more outrageous things, performing for the crowd.

It’s of course no coincidence. The whole thing was carefully planned, a “mousetrap” as one Swedish artist puts it. And based on how much traction the picture of the event has garnered, it was a very efficient mousetrap indeed.

Who’s Makode Linde, who staged the whole event? He is a visual artist, and as such has continuously asked uncomfortable questions about race, racial stereotyping and his own position as a black man in a condescending elite art world. The golliwog figure is a consistent image in his artwork, being placed on everyday objects, on paintings grinning nervously at the king, gawking in horror from children’s faces, at times undergoing almost formalist destruction. But just as importantly: he’s a club promoter and a DJ, one of Sweden’s most successful, who knows exactly how to manipulate crowds and their emotions.

And I’m left wondering – whatever the artist himself says – if the intended artwork here is not the cake, nor the performance, but the picture. Because what Makode Linde and Marianne Lindberg De Geer have produced is a picture which is incredibly powerfully laden with symbolism of colonial exploitation.

The all-white crowd, laughing bayingly and taking pictures while the African Other screams in anguish.

The cemented association between racist stereotyping and the haute bourgeoisie, as Johan Wirfält writes.

The visual connection not just to blackface but to parodied, racist depictions of African art, the kind that is looted by colonialists and that provide ongoing shame for western Ethnographical museums. At, of course, an event in a museum.

The cutting of the genitals, the literal removal of the sexual subjectivity of the screaming woman.

The feeding, not as an act of infinite compassion, but as an objectifying joke, the “recipient” made entirely passive and unintelligible.

And the fact that the source of the food is the symbolic African herself, the resources stolen from her belly.

It’s a brilliant staging of structural racism and post-colonial existence.

* Johan Palme blogs at Birdseeding.

Comments

comments

41 Comments
  1. The whole thing reminds me of a quote from Mbembe:

    “Colonised belonged to the sphere of objects. They could be destroyed, as one may kill an animal, cut it up, cook it, and if need be, eat it …simply a ‘body-thing’… to keep imaginations forever colonized”

    1. I’m disgusted by it all the’ve displayed their bigoteg view of the African woman. Fat and monstrous, an elf!

      1. The body of the cake is a reproduction of The Venus of Willendorf… and ancient (like, REALLY ancient) symbol of fertility.

      2. you do realise the artist is african-swedish – that is him there as the head. the bigoted form of the body is the whole point. the entire spectacle is essentially the piece, and the point. bigotry exists despite political correctness.

  2. I’ve written elsewhere that the Minister is responsible for this mess, as it’s her department, her show, and she ought to have known what was coming. Given her “pedigree” as grounded in anti-racst theory &/or pedagogy (from what I have read in several different places over the last couple of days), that is doubtly the case. The artist is clearly provocative, but how could he have known who would be there, and the outcome, after all, it is performance art, right? I mean, it’s not scripted. The whole thing would have turned out entirely different had the minister (with her “anti-racist” hat on) shown repulsiveness to it, as most people clearly have. What’s really sad, is that all of those white people in the room had absolutely no clue what was going on, they walked right into it, just as they have for the last 500 years. They don’t have to care, they are unaffected by it, the teflon coating protects them from it. The issues were reduced to fun, merriment and entertainment. I am reminded of American author and lecturer, Tim Wises’ speech on white denial and the pathology of privilege.

    1. You have to be aware of two rather different strands of anti-racism at play here. Adelsohn-Liljeroth’s version is (as befitting a centre-right politician) opposed to the individual racism of extremists and thugs; the idea of being against institutional racism or structural racism would be quite alien to her. And that, I think, is what is exposed here.

      And yes, she definitely deserves blame in this whole thing. As does everyone else in the room.

      1. Point taken, and understood. My “anti-racist” references were tongue in cheek. As a “general theory”, it is more confounded than just about any other discourse related to politics, sociology, cultural criticism, etc. In fact, it would be hard to say that there is anything really “general” about it at all. It’s often tossed around in a rather loose and irresponsible way. Having done my post graduate work in it years ago, when ever I see the term, the hairs on the back of my neck always bristle, until I see or hear the full context. White liberals use it as the cause de rigor. They are so sophisticated. Until they eat cake.

  3. But if indeed this performance piece found its meaning not only in the moment but in the capturing of a series of moments and the release of this particular moment into the world, what about the gaze of this new audience – is it allowing for the subversion of racism and the freeing of the human spirit; or is it merely titillation, sniggering at the Swedes, laughing at the coons, and encouraging the drumming of Western tribal drums?

    1. I’m honestly not sure. A lot of the discussion I’ve seen has not been very encouraging, but at the very least the image is out there. And you can bet it’ll turn up again, in more thoughtful contexts.

  4. It’s a brilliant PR move from the standpoint of increasing artist recognition. I don’t think a lot of people lacked awareness of many of the horrors still going on today, though the timing of this while the whole KONY thing is lingering in people’s minds was smart. The question is if raising awareness of the genetic mutilation issue will actually spur any kind of movement to stop it/support current movements, or if people will get hung up arguing about this photo itself, overshadowing the true problem. I’m sure if this helps save someone from mutilation, they personally are not going to be too concerned about the artistic direction behind the chain of events that led to the world taking action to stop this atrocity. I personally have never associated Sweden with the worst things about colonization, but that’s perhaps more a factor of my ignorance and the limited scope of majority influenced history textbooks. Winners write history as they say.

    1. One of the issues that can not be ignored here, is that the condemnation of FMG is often labelled as another “western crusade”, by white, western, feminists. And, there is some truth to this, and that line of reasoning is also an attempt to locate the issue within the context of black white power struggles, by country or globally. However, the majority of Africa does not practise this, nor does it condone it. But still, it is framed as an argument by privileged, liberal minded, white, educated, western women against the primitive, uneducated, helpless dark skinned, African woman, and their hapless, misogynist governments and cultures that condone it. Right?

      So why has this issue been framed this way? I am reminded of the framing of Kony2012 (and all of the issues affecting Uganda), and the rather pathetic, recent, Hollywood release of yet another lets-go-save-Africa-from-itself-movie, “Attack on Darfur”. Africa has long been a play- ground where westerners (read: people of European ancestry) get to live out their spoon fed, empty vessel fantasies of saving a civilization. They get to feel great in the process because they’d rather not deal with the mountains, upon mountains of shit they have in their own backyards, back in their own “motherlands” (Aboriginal issues, child poverty, teen pregnancy, homlessness, unemployment, gun control, systemic discrimination, health care, etc.). And, the fact that the west (currently) controls the flow of and direction of information has a tremendous effect on who’s story is told. But, Africa speaks, and some of us are listening.

      I know for certain that there are dozens of very talented African journalists/bloggers out there. I follow them!! There are gazzilions of followers on this site and the sites that each of the followers are linked to, that follow them too. Those are the voices that we should be listening to, and the stories that we should be following. If you are from the west, anything that you read of Africa should be heavily scrutinized for pre-cognitive bias! To be sure, there are a lot of interpretations out there. Just as with our blackfacecake2012 episode of April 2012, we cannot escape the multitude of interpretations of our actions, and opinions.

      FMG has been addressed, discussed, and fought in one way or another, by many organizations, and governments, in some cases successful, and in other cases not so much, for quite some time now. Dispite all of that, text books and university credit courses included, it is still a signicant issue. So is this blackfacecake2012 issue going to change any of that, I mean on top of all of the univeristy credit courses? Will Kony2012 change the way things are done within Uganda or with repsect to how the west interprets “Africa”? I doubt it. But, I’m a glass is 1/2 full person, and I believe, profoundly, in alchemy: the whole is always greater than the sum of it’s parts. When the stories finally get to be narrated by the narrator, then I think that we might actually begin to really listen.

  5. If you are a politican or any person who is in the public spotlight, when, for crying out loud, do you think is it a good idea to take a large knife, cut open a ‘cake person’ and eat the inside?? The symbolism will *always* be filed under ‘you are doing it wrong’. The minister needs to step down primarily for her ignorance of how media and communication work in the 21st century and for being out of touch with virtual reality (digital products will be on the Internet permanently and they will go viral). Then we can have a long, theoretical discussion about racism etc…

    1. “The minister needs to step down primarily for her ignorance of how media and communication work in the 21st century.”

      Balderdash. If she should step down because she has supported a bad policy or expressed an unacceptable opinion or done something to disappoint or alienate her electorate (which may well include the above, under discussion) then fine, but the above sentiment is unrelated to her merits as a minister. Media and communication in the 21st century work as a public witch-hunting chamber. You know it is possible to be a good person doing a good thing and come across badly on Twitter?

  6. First, Jared, I think one would need to abandon the term “mutilation” as it is insulting to some women who have had the procedure done in the context of coming-of-age rituals. These women view excision (called Bondu in Sierra Leone) as an essential part of their womanhood. A Nigerian friend who is a medical doctor once told me that her (excised) mother was disgusted with what she believes is the western world’s obsession with African genitals. So, whilst it is true that there are Africans who oppose the practice–some of whom would like to eliminate it altogether–it is also true that there are silent (or silenced) supporters who also deserve to be heard and respected. Linde fails miserably on this point. But, then again, so does much of the discussion on female genital cutting, in my view. kzs

  7. I have two thoughts:

    The first is that Jared is right to bring up how “FGM” is taken up as a crusade by certain privileged voices in the West. I’d like to recommend an article by Yael Tamir from 1996, “Hands off Clitoridectomy.” [http://bostonreview.net/BR21.3/tamir.php] Specifically, this excerpt from the end of the piece:

    “As I indicated at the outset, too often and too easily this debate [on FGM] produces condemnations of cultures other than our own. We do not usually discuss the way different cultures oppress women and compare our modes of oppression to theirs, but instead we ask, completely oblivious to our own vices, How can they do that to them? Yet as we have seen, their cultures show considerable continuity with ours.”

    The second is that what I personally found equally offensive – as an Egyptian woman, a country in which the highest estimates indicate at least 90% of women have faced some sort of circumcision – is that a male-bodied person (note that I did not say “male,” as the artist’s gender identity is not known to us) is positioning themselves as someone with authority to ‘speak’ on the issue, and perhaps ostensibly because this artist has *presumed* a shared racial background with such women.

    So I won’t let the artist off the hook here, although I agree that the majority of the blame falls on the “audience” of this spectacle of racialized *and* gendered violence. But notes of patriarchy – which is unsurprisingly upheld through serious imperialist and racial logic on the part of the participants – ring throughout this performance piece.

    1. These two arguments I definitely buy much more closely into than the “It has blackface, it must be racist” argument that seems to be the prevailing discourse around this picture on the internet.

      For the first one, though, have you considered the artist’s own commentary on why he chose to depict FGM this way? He talks precisely about how the issue has become one in which the subjective experience of FGM is turned into an objectified, exoticized, culture-racist cliché. The use of blackface, to the artist, is symbolic of the way in which all Africans have their individual identities erased and another, so to speak, painted on them.

      But yes, the fact that he’s got a male identity (he has, as far as I’m aware, though a unconventional, queer one) does raise a bunch of issues about how he participates in the selfsame silencing of African women. Perhaps “that sexist swedish cake” would be a better descriptor?

      1. No one can fully comprehend the full effect of their actions, this is especially the case in the 21st centrury, doubly with the use of social media. One quick look at the Kony2012 video and all that ensued, will tell us that. Release a video one day, next day we read about how the producer is detained for running around naked in the street. What’s the connect? Well, I won’t bore us all with the details, we know what they are. But there you have it.

        This cake issue is no different. The artist had a plan, supposedly. But, what was the plan? To get the minister fired? So show how easily white people can slip into precognitive racist mode (by clapping and laughing, and not at all seeing themselves as being dupped into performers in ” cake as performance art”)? To show the world that racism is alive and well? What exactly? I would bet that he didn’t even know beyond an idea or two. I mean how can anyone predict, with certanly how the entire world will react? They can’t, becasue there is no singular response, obviously.

        Blackface is an issue that is very sensitive to people of African descent, everywhere, but particulary in the USA where is was used constantly, and for a very long period of time. There are still very strong reactions when the slightest, and sometimes no so slight manifestations of it pop up (Italia Vogue). For most Americans, black or white, Sweden is a world away, and I can pretty well guarantee, that 99% of them have never heard of the artist (I can’t even remember his name right now as I type this, and had never heard of him before this week). And, I would say the same thing for Canadians, which is where I am writing from. I showed the still image two a couple of my classes, and they were all repulsed. The context meant nothing to them, and they didn’t care, they just simply thought it was done in bad taste, and should have been promoted differently, but still to raise awareness. They were equally disturbed at the willingness of the white people to participate so gleefully. I teach at a community college, with an international student population rate of about 50%. My classes resemble the city of Toronto in all of it’s complex diversity, so there responses are representative of an all white, all black, all male, all female, all straight class.

        And, the context for all of this becomes even more meaningless when we stop to consider that themajority of people don’t read pat the headlines. As a former commercial photiographer, I can fairly say that a picture is still worth a thousand words.

      2. “The use of blackface, to the artist, is symbolic of the way in which all Africans have their individual identities erased and another, so to speak, painted on them.”

        however blackface was predominantly used in the diaspora, not really on the continent. therefore, it would have completely different connotations for an african american versus someone from Nairobi. which i think makes it a difficult symbol to appropriate.

        in some links the cake is titled ‘African cake a la Sarah Baartman.’ Is this the correct title? and if it is, why the use of Sarah Baartman’s name and body to discuss FGM.

        And as someone who lives in a country that practices FGM, Sophia’s comments are exactly how i felt as well.

  8. If she had refused to take part in the exhibition, what would that have said about her character? If she were afraid of being seen as an oppressor through this art form, I think it would have been worse. A refusal to confront a difficult and uncomfortable section of racism in Swedish society may have made her appear more racist, or more uncomfortable with issues of race. If she is not blameless for this episode, then I don’t think the artist should be any less the subject of public furor. It was Linde’s exhibition. Just because the person involved is a politician, should not mean that she should not participate.

    The picture can be easily construed as offensive if taken as a wholehearted endorsement of the scene that it depicts, but I don’t think artists think that way, and I doubt that the attendees see themselves in that light either.

    It’s a clever bit of art that pushes boundaries and provokes reactions. People should discuss the whole situation, as you have done in this article, before they condemn the minister. Too often, reactions are reduced to a binary of acceptance or condemnation, with maybe a third option of disinterest because of irrelevance. Why don’t political groups spend their time discussing the issues provoked by this exhibition instead of condemning the minister?

    Personally, I get tired of activist organizations trying to tell me what to think, or what is an appropriate reaction. Can’t one just acknowledge the discomfort one feels from such an exhibition without declaring oneself an arbiter of taste? As Alexander Pope said, “Tis with our judgments as our watches; none / Goes just alike, yet each believes his own.” There is no way to universally condemn Adelsohn-Liljeroth because we are judging to a standard of taste, of what’s art and what’s not, of what is acceptable and what isn’t. By doing so, we miss the greater debate of what the artist presented, why it provokes visceral reactions, and what social taboos it presents.

    1. My top of the head reaction was repulsion at the golliwog cake and the seemingly racist mirth dispalyed in its cutting, but having read the context in this article by Ton Devriendt, I too, do feel that the Minister Adelsohn-Liljeroth is not in any way to be blamed. She would be damned if she did, and damned if she declined to cut the cake.The artist seems to have used her and the laughing crowd to achieve his purpose.(assuming that re-staging the colonial context was his objective). I doubt that if i were in that room, black woman that I am, I would not have laughed also- even if uncomfortably at the screaming golliwog. What’s done’s done. As hklibrarian has suggested, let us all learn the relevant lessons, debate the necessary debates, if any, and move on.

      1. Correction: ‘I doubt that if i were in that room, black woman that I am, I would have laughed also-….

      2. Correction of correction. Please ignore my first correction. My original post remains as it was. Apologies.

  9. Westerners are very emotional and divided about this issue and use a lot of words to proclaim their nuanced perspectives. They all deserve a hearty clap on the back, old chap!

  10. @hklibrarian
    Quoting a Pope to justify this racism really weakens your argument. It was used to deny the indigenous and colonised their identity.
    Christianity has a lot of blood on its hands; a Pope carved out the world to which the Spanish and Portuguese would colonise and spread the religion.

    How sad it is that the native religion in South America does not exist? That national languages of these countries are either Portuguese or Spanish?

    1. DS a fundamental weakness in your “argument” is that hklibrarian is talking about Alexander Pope, the 18th century poet, not “a Pope”.

    2. A further weakness is that you appear to think I am justifying racism in my argument. My point is that art should not have to be construed only in terms of what is justifiable and what isn’t. Something can be simultaneously offensive and artistic.

      A fundamental difficulty in criticism is looking beyond the merit of a work of art, whether it is good or not, and discussing its form and content. That’s my point.

      As far as denying indigenous people their identity through colonialism, I am going to bet that Spanish and Portuguese colonial settlers did not do so by photographing Swedish politicians awkwardly participating in performance art with racially charged overtones. Just a guess.

  11. Even if I agreed with what you say: it still was a nasty artistic strategem/set-up much like the hidden camera, ‘What would you do’ series. The lack of outrage in the audience is reflective of the herd mentality that caused widespread perpetration of racial abuse.
    I have a more detailed response to this issue including a link to this blogpost, in my blog. The post is titled, Shame.
    http://menkris.wordpress.com/
    Please read and comment. Would love to hear opinions. Thanks much.

  12. I holiday in Sweden twice every year, I am totally shocked by this act of wickedness. This is un-Swedish, what happen to the Human Love & Respect?

  13. Perhaps this will leave the door open to fight with those that serve guilt-based propaganda and guilt-based race logic. It is long overdue to end the era when only a nigger can call a nigger a nigger and get away with it, rest of the world being criminalized and fined.

    gorwell

  14. Bash stating just underlining my case, bashing Sweden for not having what Bash defines as the correct level of Human Love & Respect….

    I wonder Bash, would the colored community laugh in said situation? Would a colored or even black minister see your gravity or let out a nervous laughter? Would a negro let out a nervous laughter if it was a fat white man with prostate cancer on the table?

    BTW, WTF is racist with the ancient latin word negro-niger (nigerian) anyway? By principle, you don`t like it so you play the racist card? You racist!

    gorwell

  15. But how come it is that the response of black women is discounted in this discussion? From what I gather, they showed most outrage at the so called performance and pseudo art work, yet comments here suggest that somehow they did not get the irony or the intent of it. In 1996, I think, Baleka Mbete criticised an award winning art work by a Wits graduate which was an ashtray in the shape of a vagina. And again, art experts said that she did not understand the art work. What about imminent critique, or why is it that one has to ‘get’ the art work or is otherwise disqualified from commenting?

      1. Ignorant Swede’s that’s who you people are. You ought to be ashamed of yourselves,
        especially right ranking officials as the Minister of Culture…What Culture this shows that you have no culture at all. Just plain cruel stupidity. My great-grandparents were Sweden and I am ashamed to be apart of d”YOU PEOPLE” A BLACK AMERICAN SWEDE.

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