Let’s suppose that you are an artist who knows you have to shock people if you really want to get on in the trade. And not being Damien Hirst yet, you should probably justify your shock tactics by claiming that they serve some good cause or other. So which cause will it be?
Children of war? Taken. AIDS victims? Even Benetton has done that. Well, then, how about female genital mutilation?
That’s more promising: FGM offers possibilities for really shocking images, if you want to go down that road. And our artist certainly does.
To work, then. Obviously, an anatomically correct sculpture of a woman about to undergo this ordeal would be ideal, but not a tedious conventional sculpture made of metal, wood or papier mache. This is high art, conceptual art, so how about we do it as a cake? Then we could eat her afterwards. Nice symbolism.
Our aspiring artist (let’s call him Makode Linde) decides that his cake-woman should be black. And since he doesn’t want to be left out of the picture, he decides that the cake-woman should have a life-size body but no head.
Instead, Makode Linde will poke his own head up through a hole in the table that the cake lies on, just where the cake-woman’s head would be. He’ll be in cartoonish blackface, of course. And he invites the minister of culture to the event, in the confident knowledge that (this being Sweden) the poor fool will actually come.
Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth rolls up to the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, accompanied by several of her ministerial entourage, and is invited to be the first to cut the cake. Not just anywhere, though: she is told to cut a slice from the cake’s “clitoris.” As she does so, Makode Linde screams loudly. Then, laughing at the surrealism of it all, Liljeroth feeds some of the “clitoris” to the blacked-up artist. He laughs, too.
You will have realised by now that I am not making this up. It happened in Stockholm last week, and you can see several videos of it on YouTube. And it didn’t make me any happier when I found out that the artist himself is black.
Well, not black, actually. Linde is mixed-race, with a Swedish mother and a West African father, and he has lived in Sweden all his life. But the fact that all the participants in the event knew he was “black” made it all right for them. Well, sort of all right: if you look closely at the crowd of white Swedes in the background of the video, they’re laughing, but it is distinctly nervous laughter. They know there’s something wrong here.
Indeed there was. This event has unleashed a torrent of self-criticism in Sweden, together with a great deal of abuse from foreigners about the “racist” Swedes. The smarter Swedes suspect that they have been tricked into looking worse than they are by Makode Linde, but they’re not sure quite how he did it. So let’s help them.
Linde claims to be an “Afromantic”, whatever that means. “I’m revamping the blackface into a new historical narrative,” he explains unhelpfully — and adds that he had made this cake because the Artists’ Association of Sweden had put out a call for artistic cakes to mark its 75th anniversary. But what he’s really doing is distorting FGM into a racial issue, because racial issues are his artistic stock-in-trade.
The subtext of Makode’s little game is that black Africans are the victims of female genital mutilation, and that somehow it is the fault of white people. That’s why he appears in the sort of extreme, caricatured blackface that was used by white comedians about a century ago.
Except that the victims of FGM are not particularly black. The ones in Ethiopia, Kenya and Nigeria are, but the last time I looked Egyptians were not black, and 97 percent of Egyptian women have suffered “female circumcision.” It is generally done by the mothers and grandmothers of helpless little girls, so the perpetrators of this atrocity are almost always of the same ethnic group as the victims.
They are usually of the same religion, too. The great majority of FGM victims are Muslims, but the custom is clearly pre-Islamic. (It was already being done in Egypt under the pharaohs.) It is common all over the northern half of Africa, but its roots are in the northeastern part of the continent, where the Christian majority in Ethiopia and the Coptic Christian minority in Egypt practice it as enthusiastically as their Muslim fellow-countrywomen.
FGM is an agonising procedure (usually done without anaesthetic) whose main purpose is to deprive women of the possibility for sexual pleasure so that they will not be tempted to stray from the beds of their husbands. No amount of cultural relativism can excuse it, but this is not the right context for that discussion. The question here is: why did Linde create this ugly and deeply misleading event?
The answer, alas, brings us full circle. He thought it would have shock value, and he wasn’t going to let a few facts get in the way. See above.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose commentary is published in 45 countries.