April 15th was World Art Day. A museum in Stockholm, the Moderna Museet, celebrated with what appears to be a chocolate and red velvet cake in the likeness of a caricature of member of a generic African tribe. The cake was designed by an artist, Makode Aj Linde, who wanted to draw attention to the practice of female genital cutting, which occurs in parts of Africa (and elsewhere). Accordingly, the cake was in the shape of a woman’s shoulders, breasts, belly, and genitals; it was covered in black fondant. The head was the artist himself, painted black with cartoon-ish eyes and mouth reminiscent of American minstrelsy. Neck coils tied it all together.
The Swedish minister of culture, Adelsohn Liljeroth, was asked to cut the cake. Playing along with the “art,” she began at the clitoris. After slicing herself a piece, she fed it to the artist (it’s unclear if that was planned or improvised). Each reveler carved out more and more of the genitals, revealing brown and then red cake inside. With each cut, the artist let out a yell and cried. People attending the exhibit reportedly gawked and generally went along having a good time.
Kitimbwa Sabuni, a spokesperson for the National Afro-Swedish Association, called the cake a “racist caricature of a black woman” and criticized the event, writing:
The “participation [of the minister of culture], as she laughs, drinks, and eats cake, merely adds to the insult against people who suffer from racist taunts and against women affected by circumcision.”
The minister shrugged rhetorically, saying “Art needs to be provocative.” On his Facebook page, the artist was nonchalant, writing about the above photo: “This is After getting my vagaga mutilated by the minister of culture…”
I will go on the record saying that this is obviously racist, trivializes genital cutting, is wildly insensitive to women who have experienced cutting, and fails to accord any respect to members of communities that practice genital cutting. It’s a shameful mockery.
UPDATE: It occurred to me that it’s possible that the artist intended to trap a mostly white audience into participating in this obviously racist game, all with the intention of revealing that they would. Sort of like Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, where the fictional African American tv writer, asked by his White boss to write something “Black,” wrote the most racist thing he could think of… only to discover that audiences loved it. So perhaps the artist meant to provoke the same sort of horror that Bamboozled provokes in its real audience. And that is provocative indeed. But I’m guessing that this message will be lost on the vast majority of people at the same time it provides a satisfying opportunity to object to something obviously racist (as I did); meanwhile, more subtle discrimination and institutionalized racism remains un-examined.
One of my main areas of serious academic research involves trying to understand how Westerners think about female genital cutting, and what motivates them to understand it in the way they do. I must say, though, that I am at a loss to explain this. My research on American perceptions of the practice (not Swedish, notably) suggests that we take the practice extremely seriously, framing it as (one of) the worst human rights abuses imaginable. From this perspective, this approach to raising awareness — from the party-atmosphere symbolized by the cake to the almost comical and obviously fake protestations from the artist/actor — takes the issue far too frivolously for comfort.
Caricaturing Africans, however, and seeing them as lesser humans is also part of what drives American condemnation of genital cutting. U.S. discourses often frame Africans as either ignorant or cruel. We routinely dehumanize both women and men in these discourses. They are seen more as objects of intervention than human beings. Accordingly, it doesn’t surprise me too much that the (mostly White, Swedish) people viewing the performance felt enough distance from the practice of genital cutting to enjoy their cake. Nor does it surprise me to hear at least some of them dismiss the concerns of the spokesperson for the National Afro-Swedish Association.
The video, in all its glory:
Thanks to Sharla F., Samira A., and an anonymous reader for sending in the tip to this story!Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.