THE BIG READ: Let them eat cake
I re-tweeted author Julie Bush's tweet on Monday: "Artists, you are 'making it' if you are making your art - every day - pushing your own boundaries, making your world bigger, ours bigger."
I didn't know then that on Tuesday the world would be introduced to the provocative performance piece by the controversial Swedish artist Makode Linde, involving the Swedish Minister of Culture, Lena Adelsohn-Liljeroth.
As part of the Swedish Artists' National Organisation's 75th anniversary on April 15, various artists were invited to create a piece of art made of cake. One of them, Linde, who explores themes such as racism, xenophobia and exoticisation of black bodies, made a cake in the form of a naked black woman's torso with exposed genitals and a minstrel face.
Linde's intention, it was first reported, was to comment on the practice of female genital mutilation. In fact, the artist later clarified in interviews that his aim was to contrast Western perceptions of Africa with a realistic portrayal of slavery and oppression as part of his ongoing project, Afromantics.
"I think the people who have been upset misunderstood the intention or the agenda of me as an artist," Linde told Al Jazeera's The Stream. Sunday's event at the Modern Museum (Moderna Museet) in Stockholm became known to the world through an online film showing the cutting of the cake by the minister.
The film is disturbing. The minister and guests are eating cake (carved from the sculpture's crotch). In the background are the sounds of Linde's crying and wailing (he was hidden under the table, with only his head, which is also the cake woman's head, sticking up through the table) and the murmur and laughter of the audience.
An audience of - judging from the film - mostly white women gather around, some documenting with their cameras what looks like the butchered corpse of a caricature black woman. The scene shares traits with the scene in Jonathan Kaplan's film The Accused, in which Jodie Foster's character is gang-raped while bystanders are cheering.
Among the first to react to the gut-wrenching film was the National Association of Afro-Swedes, who immediately called for the minister's resignation and labelled the performance degrading and racist. I don't condemn the Afro-Swedes, who represent a significant number of people tired of the kind of racism which is too often dismissed as insignificant and innocent. I'm neither outraged by the minister's revolting reaction, nor could I care less whether or not she remains in her post. I also find it hard to dismiss Linde's work as racist.
What I note is that the Afro-Swedes are playing a traditional and pathetic role in a scenario that repeats itself every time racism is discussed in Sweden: that of the vexed victim whose function is purely emotional. Analysis (as opposed to emotional knee-jerk reactions) and right of interpretation, as always, still belong to ethnic Swedes thus far.
On Tuesday the internet exploded with analysis and comments about the event. Many, like myself, chose to regard the event as an ongoing piece of art of which Linde, the minister, the audience, the Afro-Swedes, and all of us, are a part.
If Linde had been white, I would have struggled to engage with him. While I don't believe black people cannot be racist towards other black people, I most likely would have doubted a white Linde's ability to identify with the black woman he is portraying and the wider context she represents. Had it been the case, I hope I wouldn't have called for censorship, but rather engaged in a discussion based less on emotion than on critical thought.
The discussion will certainly continue at least for a few days. I know black artists and intellectuals across the world will contribute to the conversation. My hope is that the part of the discussion that plays out in Swedish on the national arena will be dominated by black analysis and expertise, not only concerning racism, but artistic expression and representation in general. Linde is one brave artist whose work is considerably bigger than he is. He does not control the outcome of his own project but rather he is discovering and further exploring it with us, in the same way that he has done for the seven years of working on the Afromantics theme. For this reason I would have loved for a few more days of anxiety and confusion to pass before hearing Linde clarify and explain the obscure and therefore frightening aspects of his art, thus delivering us from uncomfortable discoveries about ourselves. On the other hand, his "interference" at this point could also be regarded as just another element of the piece.
- Hedrén is an exiled Swedish African. She is a blogger and film critic. Follow her on twitter @katarinahedren