Here’s a neat story that reminds us that beneath “mainstream” culture are rich, unique, and sometimes whimsical sub-cultures:
In 1946 a clown aficionado named Stan Bult began collecting the faces of clowns painted onto blown out chicken eggs. It became a U.K. tradition and, because it is considered a great breach of etiquette to steal another clown’s face, the eggs served as a sort of “registry.” The tradition crossed the pond in 1979 when Leon “Buttons” McBryde began a collection in the U.S. Linda, McBryde’s wife, paints the eggs herself (they use goose) and they’ve now collected over 700 unique clown faces.
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!
Hennessy Youngman is one of things-on-the-internetz that validates the entire enterprise. In the fast and fascinating 10 minute clip here, Youngman traces the history of performance art, linking it to Occupy and our contemporary engagement with the internet. Oh, and totally worth watching to the end.
One thing I love about sociology is the way it recognizes human creativity. It acknowledges our ability to create meaning and invent practices. Seeing the footage below, I couldn’t help but be amazed at the human ability to constantly innovate.
For the last week of December, we’re re-posting some of our favorite posts from 2011.
Enjoying a show last year at The Magic Castle, I was struck by the magician/assistant distinction. The magician would make a dove disappear, and his assistant would suddenly reveal it in her possession. ”Who was doing magic,” I wondered? It looked like a team effort to me.
I was reminded of this distinction while watching an NPR short on artist Liu Bolin. Bolin, we are told, “has a habit of painting himself” so as to disappear into his surroundings. The idea is to illustrate the way in which humans are increasingly “merged” with their environment.
So how does he do it? Well, it turns out that he doesn’t. Instead, “assistants” spend hours painting him. And someone else photographs him. He just stands there. Watch how the process is described in this one minute clip:
So what makes an artist?
One might argue that it was Bolin who had the idea to illustrate the contemporary human condition in this way. That the “art” in this work is really in his inspiration, while the “work” in this art is what is being done by the assistants. Yet clearly there is “art” in their work, too, given that they are to be credited for creating the eerie illusions with paint. Yet it is Bolin who is named as the artist; his assistants aren’t named at all. What is it about the art world — or our world more generally — that makes this asymmetrical attribution go unnoticed so much of the time?
For the last week of December, we’re re-posting some of our favorite posts from 2011.
Hennessey has previously treated us to his recipe for being a successful artist. In this 3-and-a-half minute video, he helps us understand what art is. Tongue-in-cheek, be forewarned, and with plenty of language that is NSFW:
Thanks to Duff McDuffee for introducing me, and now us, to The Pharaoh Hennessey.
The model is a man named Andrej Pejic, with hair and make-up usually seen only on women, sliding his shirt off his back. Some might say that he is gender-ambiguous and the image deliberately blurs gender; are we seeing a chest or small breasts? It is not immediately apparent.
Both Barnes & Noble and Borders “bagged” the magazine, like they do pornographic ones, such that one can see the title of the magazine but the rest of the cover is hidden. Barnes and Noble said that the magazine came that way, representatives for Dossiersay that the bookstore “chains” required them to do it (source). Non-ambiguously-male chests pepper most magazine racks, but this man’s chest hints at boobs. And so he goes under.
What’s going on?
Explaining why it is legal for men to be shirtless in public but illegal for women to do the same, most Americans would probably refer to the fact that women have breasts and men have chests. Breasts, after all, are… these things.They incite us, disgust us, send us into grabby fits. They’re just so there. They force us to contend with them; they’re bouncy or flat or pointy or pendulous and sometimes they’re plain missing! They demand their individuality! Why won’t they obey some sort of law and order!
Much better to contain those babies.
Chests… well they do have those haunting nipples… but they’re just less unruly, right? Not a threat to public order at all.
So, there you have it. Men have chests and women have breasts and that’s why topless women are indecent.
Of course it’s not that straightforward.
It’s not true that women have breasts and men have chests. Many men have chests that look a bit or even a lot like breasts (there is a thriving cosmetic surgery industry around this fact). Meanwhile, many women are essentially “flat chested,” while the bustiness of others is an illusion created by silicone or salt water. Is it really breasts that must be covered? Clearly not. All women’s bodies are targeted by the law, and men’s bodies are given a pass, breasty or chesty as they may be.
Unless that man’s gender is ambiguous; unless he does just enough femininity to make his body suspect. Indeed, the treatment of the Dossier coverreveals that the social and legislative ban on public breasts rests on a jiggly foundation. It’s not simply that breasts are considered pornographic. It’s that we’re afraid of women and femininity and female bodies and, if a man looks feminine enough, he becomes, by default, obscene.