A photo of the Swedish minister feeding the artist some of the cake (image via friatider.se via Facebook)

In the last few days, Afro-Swedish artist Makode Linde has learned the power of the viral web. His controversial cake performance at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet has ricocheted around the world and has garnered reactions of all types from support of his edgy gesture to raise awareness about female genital mutilation to the denunciation of the artist and the Swedish culture minister pictured in the event photos as racists. Linde spoke to Hyperallergic about the controversy and he was happy to explain the context for the piece and how commenters have not wanted to delve deeper into the work and what it has to say.

Artist Makode Linde speaking to Al Jazeera via Skype (via aljazeera.com)

As one of the only Afro-Swedish artists it is perhaps no surprise that Linde has made race a central focus of his body of work. His Afromantics series, which began in 2004, totals roughly 700 sculptures. In Afromantics, his best known works, Linde paints black face on Western cultural icons. They are obviously about identity but with a shadowy sense of humor that feel discomforting in their absurdity. As one Swedish newspaper put it in 2009, “Linde Questions With Humor.”

“Within my art I try to raise a discussion and awareness about black identity and the diversity of it,” Linde says. “The [recent] discussions [about my cake piece] have been mostly if I or the culture minister are racist or not. I think it is a shallow analysis of the work. It’s easy to take any image and put it in the wrong context.”

Linde’s cake was one of five artist cakes — the others were by Peter Johansson, Lisa Jonasson, Marianne Lindberg De Geer and Galleri Syster — that doubled as an art installation at an event last Sunday which marked the 75th anniversary of the Swedish Artists Federation at Stockholm’s Moderna Museeet. It was his first showing at the famed modern art museum and he decided to build on his Afromantics series, which he describes as taking “mass cultural symbols … and then I give them a new black life by giving them black face. In the process robbing them of their original identity.”

“You can’t see the identity of the individual representations when you see them all together in blackface,” he says about the usual reactions he gets when he exhibits a grouping of his Afromantics sculptures. “You rob them of something and you force them to be something else.”

The artist is happy with the Modern Museet performance, which he says “went off the exact way I wanted it.” He explains that the Swedish culture minister’s presence was only announced to the artist 20 minutes before the event began but he was supportive of the idea of her cutting his cake, which featured him as the head. He thinks the images of his work can stand alone but her presence added a powerful element. He doesn’t understand the fixation that commenters have on the white figures all around and he seems legitimately surprised by the aggressiveness of commenters towards the audience. “I think it is wrong to call it racist because they are white women and I’m the only black person there,” he says.

A view of the cake after party goers took a piece. (via the artist’s Facebook page)

The whole incident raises questions about cultural identity and the internet. In Sweden, Linde says, the project was mostly understood in the art world context it was performed. “In Stockholm, where I am from, the art world knows [about my work]. Ninety-nine percent of my pieces have a anti-racist context,” he says. “I’m the first one to admit that it’s a disturbing picture but it’s also a disturbing subject. One of the main roles of art is to talk about these things and make people confront them in themselves.”

He says he was conscious of how it was presented and he worked on figuring out ways that will allow more people to see the image and how it will be transmitted to a bigger audience. He doesn’t appear to have been prepared for the online outcry.

Linde made an active decision to change the form of a polite cake ceremony into one that would generate awareness and discussion. “I wanted to change the form of what was going on and scream, react and beg for mercy,” he says.

The cake was created based on African fertility symbolism and he thinks he was able to convey the strength of the emotions. “Some people actually get it when I explain and show my other work. People try to lecture me on the history of blackface, I’m very aware of where it comes from. People seem to think I am unaware of postcolonialism but I’m facing the issue every day,” he says. “I think this issue is very different when you live in Stockholm versus in New York. There aren’t that many Afro-Scandinavian artists and it is important that people talk about this.”

Linde doesn’t understand the reaction of the African Swedish National Association, which has asked the Swedish Culture Minister to resign. Linde says the group made no attempt to talk to him about the work and were very disinterested in what he had to say as an Afro-Swede. “I invited them to my studio to have a talk and show my art. They were not interested in having a dialogue with me,” he says. “When I met one person from the group [on another occasion] he said he was not interested. I asked him if he knew any Afro-Swedish artists, and he said ‘no,’ and then I asked ‘Why aren’t you interested in the one and only Afro-Swedish artist?’”

Some works form Linde’s “Afromantics” series (via urbanlife.se)

Linde’s dilemma with the cultural group should sound familiar to anyone who is part of cultural community whose spokespeople are often the most conservative and socially rigid flag bearers of a community. Often these cultural groups represent a smaller swathe of their communities than they claim to and they consider any examination or challenge of their cultural traditions as an attack.

The artist says the performance made him feel very vulnerable but he also considers the cake a sculpture much like the other works in his Afromantics series. He doesn’t think the Swedish cultural minister should resign. “She did nothing wrong, she was cool and she went for it,” he says. “She is strongly opinionated against racism. She seemed aware the kind of attention this would generate.”

Minister Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth released a strongly worded statement about the performance that clearly said, “Art must be allowed to provoke.” It goes on to say:

Our national cultural policy assumes that culture shall be an independent force based on the freedom of expression. Art must therefore be allowed room to provoke and pose uncomfortable questions. As I emphasised in my speech on Sunday, it is therefore imperative that we defend freedom of expression and freedom of art —even when it causes offence.

I am the first to agree that Makode Linde’s piece is highly provocative since it deliberately reflects a rasist [sic] stereotype. But the actual intent of the piece — and Makode Linde’s artistry — is to challenge the traditional image of racism, abuse and oppression through provocation. While the symbolism in the piece is despicable, it is unfortunate and highly regrettable that the presentation has been interpreted as an expression of racism by some. The artistic intent was the exact opposite.

In our interview, the artist sounded a little confused by the online outrage. “If people can get this upset from a woman cutting a cake, can’t they use that energy towards the real battle towards female genital multilation,” he says. “I do understand it is a serious subject and when you mix a serious subject with a light topic like cake people can get upset, but I like humor in my work because [the topics are] depressing and something I have to deal with everyday. People drop their defenses when they can joke about something.”

He also explained that he often infuses his work with a strain of Swedish humor that is very dark and cynical. “From my point of view this humor is a way to cope with horrible facts,” he says. “When I’m trying to tell my friends stories of horrible things I often use some humor to make it palatable.” He says Swedes, though he points out he doesn’t claim to speak for all Swedes, don’t like to take themselves too seriously.

Aside from the racial politics of his art work, Linde’s cake performance has also generated much needed debate about genital mutilation around the web. According to the World Health Organization, 100–140 million women have experienced female genital mutilation in the world and 92 million of those individuals are in Africa. The procedure is an arcane cultural relic that continues to emotionally and physically scar girls and young women.

What is lost on many commenters is that no matter what Linde has done, the acts of genital mutilation, which the piece was meant to highlight, are more grotesque than his performance could ever be. One New York Times article points out the gruesome realities:

“About 15 percent of those who undergo genital mutilation, mainly women in the Horn of Africa, suffer the most dangerous and extreme version, infibulation.

… All types of female circumcision have huge psychological and physical dangers. Some girls bleed to death during the operation, or die of tetanus or infection shortly after. But for infibulated women, the dangers are even greater. Many infibulated women suffer constant infections and other health problems because urine and blood back up. Their husbands must bring a knife to their wedding night to cut them open. Childbirth often is fatal for infibulated women and their babies, and their wounds make them much more vulnerable to the AIDS virus.”

Other commenters who have been critical of Linde’s performance also have a lack of understanding of Sweden and the cultural context in any discussion of the work. Sweden is over 95% “white” by American definitions of race, which means that almost any audience in Stockholm will be predominantly white so the image that is at the top of this article and being transmitted around the web is not out of the ordinarily for its racial make up. In our conversation, Linde also touches upon another issue that Americans don’t often discuss, the fact that their culture is often imposed on others and shapes their relationship to their local culture.

“If it is something that Americans take serious is postcolonialism and slavery and ‘not going there’ and making a bad joke about it. In Sweden, we don’t have the same slave trade history. But the same image of the slave dominates the images of Africans in Sweden but it is an imposed image from outside. That’s also true for black Americans but for Afro-Swedes we look at it as one more degree removed.”

“Black American culture dominates the image of black culture in Sweden but there aren’t that many similarities between Afro-Swedish culture and black American culture. I’m making a generalization but it’s a reality that our image in our own culture is being influenced by the world outside,” he says.

In a Skype interview with Al Jazeera Linde made a point that we all should remember when confronted with stark and disturbing images that are hard to register mentally and emotionally:

“The vastness of social media encourages misinterpretation when pulled out of its context.”

On the flip side, the vastness of social media can also raise awareness about an issue that continues to torture millions of people the world over. It’s a double-edged sword and one that Linde is fully aware of nowadays.

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic.

79 replies on “Controversial Afro-Swedish Artist Speaks, “It’s a Disturbing Picture But It’s Also a Disturbing Subject””

  1. Well done, Hrag, for providing the wider context for this after the understandable WTF reaction. My current thought: if Kara Walker had done this, wouldn’t the response have been different?

    1. Thanks, Philip. I felt there had to be a context at the event. The Moderna Museet isn’t exactly a shabby institution without a long history of challenging art happenings. I also don’t want to rob the artist’s work of any context. Images (as we all know) can lie or manipulate facts.

      1. I’ve still to read a
        thorough analysis of the actual performance that took place at this event. That
        in itself is a pretty complicated task since at the heart of the matter,
        there’s a lot more going on than the cutting and gorging of a racist cake. It
        may not ever be possible to entirely grasp the complex web of history, culture,
        art, several kinds of social stereotypes, and local as well as international
        politics, that informs Cakegate, but it wouldn’t be right not to try. I’m
        taking a stab at it.


        In the interview with Linde on
        Hyperallergic.com (one of the few interviews I’ve come across), the artist is
        quoted as saying: “If it is something that Americans take serious [it] is
        postcolonialism and slavery and ‘not going there’ and making a bad joke about
        it. In Sweden, we don’t have the same slave trade history.” … ” but [for]
        Afro-Swedes [we] look at it as one more degree removed.” It’s a reasonable
        claim: Sweden, like every country, has its own specific history and culture,
        and learned history is very different from lived history. So the artist is
        using a borrowed visual language; the black-face is virtually without any
        specific national past in Sweden, a country with no history of African slaves.
        One can only assume that this is a conscious choice by the artist.

        In the same interview, however, it
        becomes rather clear that Linde doesn’t understand how highly charged the
        black-face stereotype is, as we go on to learn that he “…doesn’t understand the
        fixation that commenters have on the white figures all around and he seems
        legitimately surprised by the aggressiveness of commenters towards the
        audience. I think it is wrong to call it racist because they are white women
        and I’m the only black person there, he says.”

         And I can’t help but wonder: if your art is about race, how can you possibly
        use the iconic black-face and at the same time completely overlook the
        ethnicity of your audience? To me, this is just as nuanced as making a
        performance about guns at the NRA Headquarters without acknowledging the surroundings.

        To complicate matters further, the
        artist claims that this piece is really about bringing attention to female
        genital mutilation. OK, fine, but why the black-face then? Is FGM really an
        issue of race? No. As the term itself implies, it is a strict gender issue:
        female genital mutilation, people. To continue with the analogies, I
        find this approximately as thought-through as making a performance about
        Chinese foot binding with figures wearing yarmulkes.

        This is just skimming the surface of
        the issues with this performance, of course. Plenty can be said of the Minister
        of Culture who initially claimed “being tricked”, and who thereby represents
        herself as a government lackey without any individual responsibility. Is it really
        too much to ask that she stop, look, and ask a few counter-provocative
        questions, before cutting the clitoris off the screaming cake? Apparently so.

        Making controversial art that
        provokes is absolutely fine by me and it’s fantastic when art actually reaches
        beyond its own little insular world and serves a greater purpose. But
        controversy by itself doesn’t guarantee any kind of thinking. Making art that is
        more than a one-liner and succeeds in raising difficult and/or political questions
        is very difficult, and demands strong analytical and critical faculties. It
        seems that both the artist and the audience at this event failed to do much
        critical thinking at all. And it is this naïveté that I find so unnerving –
        particularly when explained away as “a strain of Swedish humor that is
        very dark and cynical”.

        The only part about this performance
        that is dark or cynical is the utter ignorance of its participants and their
        collective self-congratulatory satisfaction with themselves as champions of
        freedom of expression: heroes in their own eyes, they miss a great opportunity
        to allow a piece of performance art ignite an important debate about race,
        identity, and representation.

        The disappointing
        outcome of the debacle is of course that the debate never gets to where it
        supposedly was intended to go: to bring attention to the girls who have their
        genitals mutilated and their lives ruined as a result of it.

        1. “It may not ever be possible to entirely grasp the complex web of history, culture,art, several kinds of social stereotypes, and local as well as international politics, that informs Cakegate, but it wouldn’t be right not to try.”

          I don’t know if you have an art degree, but i think anyone who has studied the arts can understand where this piece was coming from if they get passed the provocative nature of the documentation. You’re right about the so-called “art world” being insular though; artists often forget that normal, everyday people have different perspectives than they do. Believe then from your perspective that the artist’s critical faculties were not at fault so much as his alternative worldview was. This misjudgement is the core of racism. Just because someone does not think the same way as you do does not make them unjustified in their actions. You may not understand it, but that doesn’t mean that their words and actions are invalid.

          I may be totally wrong, since i wasn’t there. But neither were you.

        2. Thank you for your analysis. I agree with your statement that “controversy by itself doesn’t guarantee any kind of thinking”.

          What I was most stunned and haunted by were the laughing faces of mostly white women… I found their reactions painful… incredibly so, considering that racism, and to be more specific, white imperialism is really global – just because Sweden doesn’t have a history of slavery, doesn’t mean they are exempt from examining their white privilege… and, being an artist doesn’t exempt one from critical examination of what we create.

          Another layer to this is the internalized sexism that allows women in societies that practice FGM to be the facilitators of FGM… I know nothing of Swedish culture, or what feminism means to the women present at that performance, but I have to question their laughing faces, and what it takes to laugh while cutting off the clitoris of a cake sculpture of an African woman? And perhaps this, afterall, is the unintended/intended action of such a conceptual piece… to show us all how much work and healing there is to do around deeply wounding issues of racism and sexism the world over. Frankly, no matter where we live, these issues affect us all. The planet hurts along with all of its people.

        3.  As an African American woman and artist over 60 years old, I want to commend you on reading this issue spot-on! It is very hard for even our younger African American artists to grasp how nuanced the entire discussion of racist imagery is given that so much of it still packs a sever wallop in our society. Blackface was developed by American whites to demean and belittle enslaved African people. No matter how it’s served up, it remains an image that serves that purpose. Blacks who somehow think that they can take that image and subvert it so that it becomes less than the potent reminder of its original intended slap down are simply fooling themselves. The mere voraciousness in the online response illustrates how difficult it is to use this imagery without it conjuring up strong emotional feelings that cannot divorce themselves from the painful historical past all African Diasporic people share.

    2. I love Hyperallergic, but these days the content on this site has been greatly disappointing me (sometimes, not all the time) and it disappoints me that as a writer on this site you could make that statement. Your understanding of contemporary art must clearly be askew (racist) if your first impulse is to say that the reading of the work would be different had Kara Walker been the artist behind it. Not only would the work have been read differently if any other artist had made it, but I would never even imagine Kara Walker making a work like this in the setting it was in. Not only that, but Kara Walker already receives the same criticism that many people have towards this work which is infinitely more sensational than many of her projects, so if you think that she escapes criticism in her praise you are greatly mistaken. Please expand your knowledge on art and artists working with issues related to the African diaspora. We are not all doing the same thing and with the lack of coverage in terms of comprehensive posts written on this site about art from people of color it sucks that this controversy is so important to the site that it was covered not once, but twice. If you want to talk about Kara Walker and compare her work to that of other artists, let’s talk about her moving performance as part of the finale of Clifford Owen’s anthology exhibition @ PS1….which was, oh yeah, not covered in depth by this site despite its locality and historicity.

      1. I’m sorry, Coco. Did you want to decide what gets covered on Hyperallergic now? I’m glad you think the Clifford Owen’s anthology exhibition was important and should be covered. In which case, you should’ve covered it but to expect someone else to for your sake is bizarre.

        And please don’t be calling people racist for asking questions, it’s not only unconstructive — honestly, he just asked a question — but demonstrates you’re interested in labeling people more than you pretend not to be.

        1. If Linde himself said that the Afro-Swedish experience is much different than that of an American one, then why bring Kara Walker into the conversation at all? I didn’t label anyone, anything. What I wrote is that the sentiment that would invoke such a question is racist. It is not something based on any individual, but the way in which art history is taught, presented, and accepted…it is systemic. Yes, it is just a question, but it’s an important question, that is representative of a certain way of thinking that I thought a site like this would push against. As a woman, and an American, Kara Walker’s viewpoint is much different than that of Linde, so to imagine her as being the maker of a work such as this is nearly impossible, unless we are assuming that all instances of the use of blackface in art are interchangeable and referencing the same thing. Additionally, it would also suggest that these questions should only be posed by artists that are part of the African diaspora. Walker and Linde are artists of different generations and having more experience in the art world Walker has learned how to edit her work so that it will be impactful rather than stereotypical in its agenda. I did not ask for your site to cover that performance, which Kara Walker did perform in. I brought it up since she was mentioned in comparison to this work. If Philip had some knowledge of Walker’s performative pieces, I doubt the comment would have been made since her performances are quite different to Linde’s cake piece. If we want to talk about artists dressing up in blackface in a European setting, let’s talk about Lili Reynaud-Dewar. Or if the conversation is about the history of the provocateur’s role in art, and the backlash they often receive, then why not bring up Hermann Nitsch as well? In terms of Swedish art maybe there is some type of relationship to the performances of Tobias Bernstrup. I meant to point out that a link to Kara Walker is quite superficial. Being that this site doesn’t often cover artwork dealing with issues of the African diaspora I find it unsettling that you act as if your own opinion is the same that your readers should have, especially when some might be more engaged in its history. I am not saying that you should cover these types of works either and you already do have a few contributors that do bring up these questions themselves. But, if you are not an expert, then why should I share your same opinion? I have never pretended to not label people. In fact I am labeled all the time. Every time an artist is referred to as Afro-Swedish, Latin American, European, African American etc. it is an act of labeling that deserves to be called out. Do you not want your readers to ask questions? Are you asking us to not be critical of this artwork? If your interest in this story came from a place of the impact of social media, then I would have appreciated a greater focus on that. I think it is important how social media can affect the understanding of an artwork. If Hyperallergic is a place for radical thinking about art in the world today it would be beneficial to keep on pursuing art news beyond what gets to the frontpage of Yahoo like it nearly does all the time. 🙂

          1. Thanks, Coco. But Afro-Swede is Linde’s term for himself. I’m not sure why you are against him self-labeling.

            I think you’ll notice that the African diasporan is covered on Hyperallergic more than most, actually, almost all other art sites. So, I think you’re basing that on little fact.

            My knowledge of the African diaspora is actually quite vast. Not sure why you assume it isn’t, but I also understand issues of the African diaspora in the context of other diasporas and there are more commonalities than you may know. The African diaspora isn’t as unique as some people may believe.

            This article was an attempt to get the artists story out there, which no one else was doing, and the fact is that everyone who is criticizing the performance never attended the event or saw the work or knows the context beyond press photos and a few video snapshots. It is disturbing that people are rushing to judgment without knowing the context or the artist’s body of work. And I think assuming what Walker would or wouldn’t make isn’t exactly productive.

          2. I was referencing the many times on this site, as with many other publications, that an artist’s nationality, race, ethnicity, etc is used as their introduction in order to give a context to their work.

            When you write, “As one of the only Afro-Swedish artists it is perhaps no surprise that Linde has made race a central focus of his body of work.”

            You reinforce the idea of the Afro-Swedish identity as an other that can only speak of their otherness, as if that is the only type of artwork someone of that background could make. If your understanding of the history of art related to the African diaspora is so vast, I wonder why you would find it no surprise that Linde’s work confronts the topic of race without giving context as to what makes up the art scene in Sweden or the work of other Afro-Swedish artists.

            Saint Barthelemy was Sweden’s stronghold into the slave trade in the Americas, and Sweden also introduced some of the first slave trade ship fleets, so I was a bit confused with Linde’s statement of Sweden not having the same history with the slave trade as the U.S. Of course, it is a different history, but it is there. In fact, if we examine Delaware’s history we can also find the introduction of slaves of African descent during the time it was a Swedish settlement. A difference is that Sweden has had a longer history of contact with the continent of Africa and people of African descent have been noted to live in Sweden as servants since the 1300’s. But that is a long tangent from the point of discussion here. 

            I guess essentially what this article lacks, is that extra umph that provides true reasoning besides provocation as to why one should care about this work past what Yahoo! news had to say. But, that is not your fault. It is the artist that chose his words, and I can see that you wanted to give a him a chance to explain.

    1. I agree its also a prison for the margenalized races outside of the european “norm” racial art is the art people who arent “white” make.

    2. trite? its not race art its the mutilation that he’s focussed on. Looking at his other works, it seems like he just wants to bring attention to the injustice..not mock other cultures

  2. This interview was wack beyond belief. It didn’t even discuss the misogyny inherent in having a man take it upon himself to mock and “use humor” to represent a group that he does not belong to. How many women did his art save? Absolutely none. How many people who circumcise women will rethink what they do as a result of this coonery? Absolutely none. What Linde was exploitive and opportunistic.

    What he slimes over is the fact that the world is much bigger than Sweden and knowledge of Sweden makes absolutely no difference here. He purported to be doing this on behalf of the women who undergo circumcision. Where is this circumcision taking place? Is there an infibulation epidemic in Sweden? Of course not! He’s claiming that he’s drawing attention to a subject that he proves he knows nothing about in cultures that he knows nothing about. If he had taken any amount of time to actually study this subject or even listened to what women who have experienced it have to say, then he might have some basis for his claim that he’s trying to draw attention to the subject. He hasn’t even paid attention to it, so how could he help others to get to the root of the issue?

    Yes, he’s an ethnic minority in a predominantly non-African nation. There are millions of folks who live that story. That doesn’t make one special nor does it mean that the individual has any understanding of the cultures that they are so removed from. I’m African, Indigenous American, Irish, and French. I even belong to a community where there are more French-speakers than in any other parts of my country. Does that mean I’m educated enough about the lives of women in Dublin or Montbéliard to go before the world and claim that I am representing their best interests?

    I have yet to hear that a single woman who has experienced circumcision actually felt like Linde accomplished something positive for them. That’s probably because he wasn’t even trying to. This was about him using OUR bodies, the bodies of women of African descent, to impress his mostly Swedish audience. In my country, we have a term for people like that. He’s a Token. He is nothing more than someone who is willing to contribute to the exploitation of others, in order to receive a few pats on the head from the dominant group in his area.

        1. Good to know. I found the work very offensive initially but after talking to the artist and considering the context I found it less so and actually a very provocative way to engage with the topic. He’s raised awareness and I don’t think it’s the job of art (the majority of the time) to save lives. Though I’m not sure how we would gauge if it did or not. Perhaps some people became educated about the topic or donated as a result of the work, would that qualify?

          I do take issue with calling him a token though. Neither of us have lived in his context or had his life experience. Artists always create work that is beyond their experience. They imagine worlds elsewhere and engage in dialogues about topics that don’t have to deal with directly themselves. If they didn’t then most novelists would be out of job or everything would be a memoir.

          I do think American terms and American perspectives on dialogue dominate (crush?) global debate on issues, including racism and sexism, and I do understand his need to engage with the topic on his own terms. 

          I think his work s successful in some ways and unsuccessful in others — like most work.

          1. The problem with the notion of it being meant to raise awareness of female genital mutilation, is that it brought more attention to what is known not as a fertility symbol, but a racist caricature, and the prime minister, than to anything truly dealing with the horrors of that procedure.  The dialog has been about race, racism, and the media, NOT the very real issue he claims.  For commenters to speak to Linde’s cake rather than FGM does not signify a lack of concern over the issue, but that his piece is a distraction from any real discussion of the issue.

            Yes, artists do work beyond their experience, but that does not make them exempt from critique and it certainly does not make them a neutral party to their “art”.

            For Linde to say that he doesn’t understand the reactions towards the minister at best, speaks to naivete.  A national official, at a public event, did something that reflects negatively on not just her, but her nation.  She (and Linde) should expect criticism.  He posits himself as the only Afro-Swede artist, but should he get special consideration simply for that reason?  His race makes the presentation less offensive?  He’s participating in radical “art” but is surprised by a radical reaction?  And he speaks of “a woman cutting a cake” but if that’s all it is, then he’s denying the power of the symbolism he’s using.  He knew it was more than a woman cutting a cake, otherwise he wouldn’t have done it.

            Yes, the US has a bloody, ugly history and that ugly history has infected and influenced many other countries.  As the world itself shrinks, we become aware of others and, at our best, try to respect that when it comes to offending others.  If you’re using images born in American violence, and racism, you should certainly expect a strong response from that nation.  The conversation around racism is often colored by American notions because so much of the negative images around the world COMES from America.  So maybe Linde is trying to speak to what’s happening in Sweden.  Then the response is that yes, it may be offensive in a certain context to people in America, but it’s meant to make a statement WITHIN Sweden only and if we look closer we can learn something about Swedish attitudes towards Africans or Afro-Swedes or whoever.  But Linde isn’t saying that, is he?  His purported meaning shifts and changes based on who is criticizing what aspect of his presentation.  Not so good for being in the public eye. 

          2. What a fantastic debate….I am having an emotionally charged one with a colleague here in south africa. I mention race here as i believe it to be relevant….my colleague is from kenya and I am mixed race south african. Our discussion centers around the reaction of those present at the exhibition….those that are laughing are actually so insensitive to the rape and exploitation of africa. I’m thinking that within the context of an event like this the act of cutting the cake which causes a scream of pain is a significant factor that is simply a surprise. The colonial era caricaturised representation of black african women inadvertently encouraged a humorous response. (In addition to reminding the viewer of the discrimination & prejudice by highlighting its historical relevance.) I too comment Makode for his initiative and creativitity at conceptualising a statement like this…..it has succeeded in making me more aware of female circumcision. Good art is meant to provoke reaction and hopefully spawn effective response to issues raised. Bintalshamsa, what are YOU doing to highlight gross human rights violations around the globe or closer to home. Or is it your job to criticise others that are….? 

          3. Do you really want to know? As a matter of fact, I’ve been a disability rights activist and moderator of Christian/Muslim dialogue sessions for over a decade and a half. I’m a womanist who has been writing and speaking about this particular issue for nearly the same amount of time. You can find out about my activism by simply googling my name.

            Thanks for asking…Now, what are YOU doing to help support women like me who are truly educating others about the concept, history, and context of genital circumcision? Are you just another man who thinks he knows what’s in our best interests, like Linde? Or are you one who is willing to listen to what WE have to say about our lives?

          4. I guess you can thank linde for making others aware of your work.
            that is the way it happens.don’t be so arrogant.

          5. I could care less about whether it is “offensive” to someone. My issue is with its exploitation and marginalization of those who he claims he was trying to help. He hasn’t raised awareness about genital circumcision, because he isn’t aware of what it is and how it affects women. I mean, if we just held up “bringing awareness” as an inherent good, we could say that Anders Breivik is just as noble as Linde, because he brought attention to the issue of Norwegian terrorism. After all, it isn’t Breivik’s job to save lives, right?

            Is there any proof that people became educated because of his art or helped those who truly are working to end this practice? If there isn’t, then we certainly don’t need to imagine that it had that effect.

            You are free to take issue with the fact that I called him a token, but it doesn’t really signify much. I don’t know your educational background, but I’d like to believe that any person of average intelligence and sophistication is at least vaguely aware of the fact that acceptable in-group language is very different from what would be appropriate to direct towards out-groups. Not only is it different; it’s also impossible for out-groups to truly experience the meanings of “culturally-loaded” terms from the perspective of those who are primarily targeted by them.

            This exploiter, Linde, spoke at length about being a racial minority in a country, as a person of mixed heritage that includes African ancestry. In that respect, he and I are both members of a very particular group. Even though YOU haven’t, I have lived in that context and shared that life experience. My relationship to Linde is not the same as yours, so it’s ridiculous to expect what’s true about you and him to also be true for me and him. You aren’t in a position to even have a significant opinion about whether calling him a Token should be seen as an “issue”. I used the term “Token” to refer to him, because it describes a character type that can be recognized (by us) in nations as far removed from America as one can get. 

            Being American and America’s rampant racism and sexism had absolutely nothing to do with why I called him a Token. See, I used this particular term, because I was writing in ENGLISH. If this was an article written in one of the other languages that I speak, I could use the terms that describe the same thing in that language. If you create a French, Spanish, or Arabic translation of your article and a comment board for those who aren’t monolingual English-speaking Americans, I’d be more than happy to participate. I actually think that English is a rather piss-poor language to use when attempting to express opinions in writing.

            He doesn’t need to engage with this topic on his own terms. Being a woman who has gone through this isn’t his lived experience nor has he ever lived in the cultural context where this is practiced. See, these are things that you would know, if you actually took the time to do even cursory research on female circumcision or Linde’s background before you attempted to interview him. Failing to do that is just sloppy journalism and it certainly doesn’t treat writing as an art.

            I don’t engage in journalism much anymore. However, I do know that when one is writing about something that occurs in THIS world, there exists a responsibility to actually learn about it, first. I suppose that if a writer aspired to nothing more than being a two-bit hack employed by The National Enquirer, that might not matter to her or him, but ethical writers certainly accept that responsibility.

            In a place with abundant internet access, there is simply no excuse for not even taking the time to educate yourself on the basics. You have no idea how sexism, racism and other forms of bigotry are consistently used against those who possess no dominant-race heritage by mixed-race/mixed-ethnicity individuals in order to mimic the same gross hierarchies used and reinforced by the dominant ethnic/racial group. Yet, you still believe that you did a good job getting to the bottom of the controversy. You didn’t even scratch the surface.

    1. I think Makode is working from a queer frame of reference where he doesn’t hold to gender binaries so rigidly. He has a history of doing drag, and this was an extension of that. To call him out for representing femaleness, without acknowledging his own ongoing critique of gender binary is an error.

      1. I am a queer woman, so are many of the other women who have spoken out against Linde’s exploitation of female bodies. I am raising a wonderful bi-gender-identifying child who has a female body and I’m partnered with an asexual male in what some would call an “open marriage”. Please don’t try to explain gender to me. The idea that a queer frame of reference could explain away Linde’s exploitation and marginalization is laughable.

        First of all, there is nothing about being queer that necessitates a rejection of gender binaries. There are queer people who accept the concept of gender binaries, lock, stock, and barrel. One of the fiercest, ugliest battles in the LGBTQIA community is that being contested by those of us who argue that the presence of male or female genitals is enough to define one’s gender and those of us who see their lives as living proof that this isn’t the case.

        While performing drag may be considered trangressive to hetero folks, it isn’t anything out of the ordinary in LGBTQIA communities. It is no more a critique of the gender binary when I don’t shave under my arms, don’t wear any make up and wear a trucker hat with my jeans and t-shirt. Perhaps you should take the time to read what queer women theorists have written about drag and how it is often used to reinforce sexist stereotypes about women.

        Seriously, this isn’t hard to do, folks. If you’re going to attempt to engage in a conversation about why so many women object to Linde’s exploitation, the least you should do is get a good understanding of what we’re saying is problematic. Sheesh!

    2. While Sweden’s population is predominantly white, a significant fraction of the immigrant community is black African, many of them refugees from war-torn countries like Somalia. These families who come to Sweden often struggle to integrate socially and economically, due to resistance from both sides. Many immigrant families work hard to maintain their cultural practices, and this has on some occasions included female infibulation. Female infibulation is a criminal offense by Swedish law, but they struggle to crack down it, because these procedures are carried out in secret, or girls are taken abroad to have it done. Banning it is also an infringement on tradition, which ties into the touchy subject of cultural integration in Sweden. Female genital mutilation is the most extreme example of traditions in the foreign community that are opposed by Swedish society, but as you go down the ladder of traditional practices, it starts to become more blurry at where the Swedes can draw the line and say ‘We don’t accept this in our society.’ It’s especially touchy as many of these families are, as mentioned, refugees and have nowhere else to go. Because of this, open debate is controversial, and perhaps very few people from the Afro-Swedish community are willing to put themselves out there and critique aspects of their own community. The fact that it was a man who stepped out and confronted the topic is possibly representative of how few African women are currently raising this discussion in Sweden. At least someone, other than right-wing conservative Swedes, is trying to put something out on the table to ignite a discussion.

      1. Or, it could be that Swedes are doing as dominant cultures always do and ignoring what marginalized people are saying unless it comes through an acceptably “civilized” intermediary. Or it could be that Afro-Swedish women know that emphasis on this practice is nothing more than the same feigned concern that Western nations gladly use as justifications for stripping marginalized people of their culture and/or expanding their area of influence into parts of the world where the native inhabitants just so happen to be darker than them.

        Igniting a discussion isn’t necessarily laudable. Seeing a homeless person languishing in the streets could ignite discussion. Should we just go up to the person and thank them for the spark and walk away?

    3.  You are very unfair.  At least he is doing something.  Which is better than doing nothing.  Ok, you could question what he done but you seems so angry, but don’t know what.

      You claim he can’t protest agains women circumcision, because he is a man?
      He can’t protest, because he is a African, living in Sweden?
      He can’t protest, because he isn’t a child of a US african slave?

      Well, what can he do?  Nothing but paint some pretty paintings of flowers?

      I don’t think that femal african americans has a monopoly on protesting against circumcision or any other wrongdoing to african women or any women for that matter.

      And yes, in Sweden the black face has no political value, not as i US.  Neighter has it if the prime minister would be a homosexual atheist.  I would guess that would be outrageous in US for a president to be.

    1.  No, dear… he actually has power and was elected by the party that doesn’t keep a few “darkies” around just to say they don’t really really hate the blacks, but actually sees people of color as equal to everyone else and not less qualified or a bad choice based on their skin color.

        1.  Uh, you mean in the wars Republicans dreamed up and pushed with falsified info… that were fought by armies that also have a lot of non-black soldiers?  You are really reaching there.

          1.  So, is your problem with the American army, the wars themselves, or the army being commanded by a black man?  Or do you have something specific to point out that makes the army under Obama in some way so much different and worse than under any other president, including the president who started the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?

          2.  WHAT FUCKING GENOCIDE, YOU FUCKING LOON?  Yes, there are people dying in Afghanistan and that have died in Iraq.  Yes, much of it could be handled better.  It is still not genocide and to try to call it genocide is a slap in the face to every group who has faced actual genocide.. jews, native americans, armenians, and rwandans to name a few.

          3.  You didn’t tell me what genocide you are talking about.  And for being a warmonger, he sure hasn’t started any new wars.  In fact he ended the war and occupation in Iraq, is looking to do the same in Afghanistan, and rather than a full-scale invasion and war he kept American involvement in Libya’s revolution quite minimal.
            Its not that I am naive.. is that you aren’t providing anything but rhetoric.  Bring some facts to the table and then we’ll talk.

          4. Barack Obama just shifts troops around and calls them different names like training brigades to make deployments more palatable for voters.  Iran is next on our Arab genocide hit list or have you forgotten?

          5.  That doesn’t make him a “warmonger”.  He hasn’t started a single fucking war, much less committed genocide.  As for Iran, he didn’t start this conflict with them, they are not Arab (most Iranians are PERSIANS), and your paranoid fantasies about what will supposedly happen in the future does not qualify as actual fact.  You still haven’t presented any facts to back up your utterly retarded assertions.

  3. Thanks for more insight on this Hrag. I’m still sorting my feelings about this and I suppose any success that Linde has accomplished is opening up a larger dialogue on appropriateness and context.  Philip mentioned the  potential for alternative interpretations if the subject was handled by Kara Walker for instance; I also question the effectiveness as “party” performance vs a stand alone performance. 

  4. honestly after reading the article i get it. the image with out the context is jarring. I’m sure as an artist he sees this as a success. fertility symbol in black face the contents of its belly being eaten by a room full of old white women. deep very deep and powerful. 

  5. I am an artist.  I do a different type of art, but I create and I feel art is a means of communication.  Most of us want people to see our work and respond to it.  Sometimes we make a statement and get a different response than we intended. When that happens don’t say the people just didn’t get it.  Maybe the artist just did a poor job of communicating.  The use of black face, I am pretty sure originated from America, so African Americans are going to have a particular response, me being one of them.  So don’t be mad at us if we get offended by something like this.  That imagery hurts because there is a history behind that and my family and my people were humiliated by that imagery on a daily basis from the print, to the screen, cartoons, the stage, sculptures, etc,  Almost every aspect of life we reminded of how we were thought of in this country.  I can only imagine what the women and their friends and family, who experienced circumcision, would say.  Art should provoke, inspire, enlighten, among other things, but it is not beyond or above criticism. Makode Linde wanted attention, now he has it.          

    1. Makode Linde is very aware of the history of Black Face. That said, African Americans should not demand that other Afro-Diasporic peoples mirror their American-centered experience back to them. Afro Swedes shouldn’t have to edit themselves for the sensitivities of Americans. Makode has been doing this work since 2008. His audience was the people in that room, maybe also folks that knew something about him and his work on his social media networks. That it spread beyond that is a matter of happenstance. 

  6. To have the ability to use humor in difficult subjects is a sign of intelligence and a way to transcend horrible realities. Art has the right to provoke, as the minister states. It can teach people to be in control of their thoughts and emotions instead of being reactive, to be proactive. Why should racism, sexism, or any form of bigotry be only politely discussed?

  7. No. For an artist to basically say that the people who are offended by his work interpreted that way because they’re ignorant of the subject? No. It’s a pretentious thought of an artist when he or she believes that their intent trumps their educated audience’s interpretation. Instead of blaming those who were rightfully offended, perhaps Linde should consider the idea that his art may have failed.

    This article does nothing but put further distaste of this artist in my mouth. It’s an excuse. He’s a black man living in a Swedish bubble. He’s somewhat removed from the diaspora? Okay. But if he’s going to do a piece such as this, he cannot whine when others in the diaspora call bs. He used blackface (USA nonsense), a fertility goddess that looks like a Hottentot Venus (Imperialism nonsense), and sat his behind in a room full of white women (Swedish nonsense, apparently). If he doesn’t get why that it offensive to some of his critics, he needed to make himself more knowledgeable of the subjects he was delving into.

    And even when I get over the racism aspect of it, I’m still offended as a woman. First, I’m offended that a room full of women participated in this, laughing and posing for photo ops as they sliced up cake vagina. Next, I’m offended that female circumcision was used as the excuse to do this, as it seems so secondary to the blackface and the cartoonish moaning. Let’s go for three and say I’m offended that this was a cake and they ate the cake from the vagina up and cake is ruined for me for the rest of the year. He associated genital mutilation with the taste of cake. Thanks for that. What I would like to know is if Linde got paid for this? Did he give any of the money towards the cause of stopping female circumcision? That’s the only way he would be beneficial to this cause because the only thing this art piece called attention to was his ignorance.

    I honestly don’t care about his intentions. If I think about it long enough, without having been previously told that the piece was supposed be about female circumcision, I probably would have thought it was about the caricaturing, sexualizing and raping of African/black culture. And even that’s a stretch, but him expressing his butthurt in this interview just tosses out any attempt to justify this to me. He tried to make a statement about something he’s not a part of, he failed to make that statement and he blamed others for not accepting it how he wanted it accepted. No.

      1. But in this case his audience (at the event) seems to have gotten it. It’s the images that circulated post-event that generated the controversy. I’m not sure if every artist should prepare for the social media scrutiny as an integral part of the work each time.

        1. Oh, so the issue of female mutilation is to take a knife to it… even though it’s not a real person (apart from the yelling head each time a knife cuts into its ‘region’) but it represents a female person receiving pain. Is that how the audience sees it? That’s like eating the heart of a beast to give you courage before going to battle. To my understanding of the actual ‘act’ is to use a sharp ‘blade’ to remove the womans’ pleasure: steel, glass, stone. But if the procedure does not go to plan, she may be incapable of holding urine and the constant smell to the point of being an outcast; living with this stink. He trivialised another couture to get an issue across without even studying it. Just something he read in a paper or looked up on the net. It’s insulting to call it art in that text and not knowing as to why it’s done. If he knew, he would have told you and chances are he would not have made this piece.And to those that had a slice; meh, just a performance.

          1. It’s art. It’s not torture. You could also view it as the party goers taking a knife to the fertility of Africa. It’s a cry for help. I don’t think he trivializes it. He was given parameters and he worked within those means. Is this a gallery show? No. It’s also not his masterpiece but a continuing of a series he’s been developing since 2004.

          2. If he invited the women to cut up the body, then how was his performance a cry for help when they did what he asked them to do? Think, Vartanian. I mean, you don’t even have to be aware of the fact that his cake and blackface makeup have absolutely no connection to African fertility in order to understand why the view you suggested is ridiculous.

        2. Uh, no. You’re wrong again, Vartanian. That is what happens when you assume that you know enough about this controversy that you needn’t do any research on it. It’s an ignorant notion that his audience all got “it”, unless “it” was that pretending to slice up the bodies of women of color can be pretty hilarious.

          At what point are you going to just realize that you won’t be able to generate an intelligent comment about this controversy without actually taking the time to listen to the women who have been exploited by him (and the other men like him)? Do you just dislike listening to what women have to say? Are you just not concerned about accuracy? What’s the deal, Vartanian?

      2. no. art that can only be explained has failed. otherwise an explanation would suffice and art wouldn’t be necessary.

        this piece is over the top and i can understand that it would hurt, anger, and shock people. but i think i accept that as hurtful as the piece is it can never be as hurtful as its subject. i think i can accept that he wants to help.

  8. This is an extraordinary, powerful piece by Makode Linde.  
    One wouldn’t normally equate the glib downing of a birthday cake with genital mutilation, unless one considers how the world views the present holocaust of female mutilation in Africa with virtually equal unconsciousness — despite all the screaming.  Why the glib-ness at all this incredible pain?  Well, the piece hints (or perhaps states boldly) the reason is that we have ingested all too well these de-humanizing stereotypes of blacks into our minds, like birthday cake; and that our ears are deaf to the screams of women though not so to the screams of this particular male artist at the moment.I don’t see this piece as racist or misogynist — quite the opposite.  It points the finger right at it.

  9. There is actually a big Somali, Ethiopian and Eritrean community in Stockholm and much of Sweden, which comprise the main countries in the Horn of Africa, i.e., the very part of the world which has one of the highest rates of FGM. Whilst there may not be an infibulation epidemic in Sweden several of the communities where it is practised are present there. Moreover, several of them have maintained ties to their countries of origin…so the message is reaching some of the people it should be reaching. How do I know this? I am of Eritrean origin and a Swedish citizen…I don’t think he is being at all exploitative, in fact I take my hat off to him. Bintalshamsa, please stop banging the drum of contrived indignation… 

  10. I think the perspectives of black Americans should dominate discussions pertaining to race. The continent of Africa should also. But here in America (Carribean), the racism and oppression experienced makes us able to speak to issues of race. And if Afro-Swedish people did not find it offensive that’s great. But the artist cannot overlook or ignore that many black Americans were offended by this piece. Even as a woman, I am offended, and I think that such a topic should not have been mocked or made fun of. To have someone, cutting the “genital” area of the cake and then feeding it to the head!!!!! Are you kidding me????????? I don’t know how the artist can say that there was nothing wrong with that. I can respect his Afromantics series. It is thought provoking, and pushes some limits. But this piece just went over the top. This cake and these photos made me sick to my stomach, literally. It was a poor choice, I think…his right as an artist, but he can’t say that the backlash is unwarranted. 

  11. “The [recent] discussions [about my cake piece] have been mostly if I or the culture minister are racist or not. I think it is a shallow analysis of the work. It’s easy to take any image and put it in the wrong context.”  Sorry, but I think a shallow piece is going to garner a shallow analysis.Nevertheless I looked at this again in the context of the message he was trying to convey.  His work attempts to use humor to delve into uncomfortable subjects. Using Post Civil War iconography overlaid on the issue of FGM in sub-sahara Africa, the result is a disturbing commentary on the cannibalization of Africa’s resources mixed in with a subtext of self loathing.  So we have a cake that shines a light on two very important and different issues without building much of a bridge toward understanding.  If the purpose was to engage viewers in a dialog about race did this somehow happen after the awkward laughs and photo op?  Among the insiders that supposedly “got it” I am not seeing any of them rushing to his defense– all I see is laughter at his expense which all reminds me of Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled”.  So now I’m brought back to the fact that this cake was a convenient vessel for provocation and I still can’t get past the fact that he said his work achieved what he intended yet he is surprised by the backlash.  Surprised by the backlash or the fact that he’s left alone to answer not only for himself but for the “insiders” who supposedly understood the piece?  Btw, hasn’t this all been done before?  As in, 6 months ago by Marina Abramovic at the MOCA Gala in L.A.? With surprisingly similar reactions by the way…

    1. This has no comparison to the Abramovic piece. She exploited underpaid workers who were exposed to the whims of the crowd. She did not put herself in that position. Here the artist made himself vulnerable. Very different things.

      1. Linde was never vulnerable. It wasn’t his body that he depicted nor was it a body that could ever experience female circumcision. He exploited women of color for the whims of his white crowd. It’s not different at all.

        1. That’s, again, your opinion. You seem to have a problem with people who differ with you. I’m not interested in “convincing” you and you’re obviously not listening to others who differ. Glad you’ve chimed in though.

  12. Not really. There were life-size cakes of her and Debbie Harry at the party.  Compared to the low wage “lazy susan” heads at the tables the cakes were but a small sideshow.  I hear what you’re saying about him putting himself in a vulnerable position but Abramovic’s body of work is characterized by the same vulnerability, right?  For the record, I am NOT trying to compare the works of the two because the only similarity here is that they chose to feed museum patrons using life size red velvet cakes of themselves.

  13. Art is still art. And we shouldn´t be able to stop art, in my opinion. We can critique and dislike it as much as we want to, but censoring the art scene would defeat the purpose with art. There are many artists who would be banned then, like Lars Wilks for example. There is always someone/a group who dont like it or even gets offended. But isnt that our own choice, to get offended, we choose our emotions and it isnt the artists choice or even responsibility what we do with our feelings. If you want to feed the hate inside, it is always yourself that gets hurt: it is your choice.

  14. Creative intent and the public’s perception probably will always provoke, as it should. The energy of protest against the metaphor hopefully will balance the reality of the theme. to paraphrase an adage, ” There are those who will fight for a religion rather than live by it” I’m Just Saying (IJS)

  15. This is the problem with the currect state of “art” around the world. It is more about the concept than anything actually being art. I’m sure those of you will argue that the concept is the art but I disagree when the the concept breeds little beyond a thought and fails to venture into anything solid. This is modern art…more shock than anything of any substance. The fact that is was a black artist makes this even more disturbing in it’s insensitivity unless his true goal was to expose racism among the elite of Sweden…which it was not. He was looking for publicity…and got it.

  16. At the end of the day I don’t support Barack Obama just because he’s half black.  I may not be as well-informed as others but I do know a liar and a crook when I see one.

  17. Well, what certain “queer women” have said about drag, the ones you are referring to, is mostly irrelevant. Drag has only gotten more popular since the 70s, and women regularly participate in it as Drag Kings, Faux Queens and what have you. Who takes the anti-drag trajectory seriously but a (mostly college) hardened group of folks whose conversation exists in a hall of mirrors where where everyone re-enforces each other’s beliefs about the world with the same level of outrage. The anti-drag trajectory isn’t workable in the ACTUAL world. 

    My intention was not to give you a teach in about gender, but just to mention that Makode’s piece exists in the context of queerness as it relates to gender. To just blow his representation of a woman off as merely ‘sexist’ is what I perceive to be a strategy of heterosexist queer erasure. As days go by and I read more and more thoughtless spew that has been passing for ‘critique’ of Makode’s thoughtful and layered cake-piece, I feel like what it has really come to show is the limits and failure of current anti-racist and anti-sexist criticism. Art is not advocacy. Art that references historically racist imagery is not racism. Racism is racism. Also, another piece of the pie here is this work comes out of a punk/metal subcultural aesthetic. Which is a TOTALLY different aesthetic than the hippie feminist aesthetic that people seem to be demanding all the time when talking about race or identity politics. It bothers me that this is also another seemingly invisible contextual detail that nobody is mentioning. 

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