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.