On Sunday April 15th, “the Swedish minister of culture Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth cut in to a large cake shaped like a black woman as part of an art installation which was reportedly meant to highlight the issue of female circumcision” (Jorge Rivas 2012: p.1). Afro-Swedish artist Makode Linde, who acted as the head of the cake, and screamed as each person cut into the black female body created the live art installation. The artist commented on his piece on Facebook saying the following: “Documentation from my female genital mutilation cake performance earlier today at Stockholm moma. This is after getting my vagaga mutilated by the minister of culture, Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth. Before cutting me up she whispered “Your life will be better after this” in my ear,” (Rivas 2012: p. 1).
Portraits and video images of the art piece are now circulating on Facebook and Youtube, and sparking much debate about the artistic nature of the piece in light of the blatant racial underpinnings. It is difficult to critique art when freedom of expression is something that is valued within the art world; nevertheless it is hard not to question the validity of Linde’s performance as art. Though the cake reportedly was created as a means of highlighting the controversial issue of female genital mutilation; the ways in which the spectators reacted to the piece, and the lack of critical analysis on the part of the artist give me pause.
What is presented to the public gaze is a naked and grotesque image of a black female body caricatured in a stereotypical manner; being cut into by laughing white faces while the head screams and moans with each stab. The image is one that is graphic in such as a way it is a vivid reminder of the ways in which black female bodies continued to be upheld as spectacles of race. Furthermore, there is much to think about in terms of Linde performing as the screaming head of a woman in the first place. While some have commented, on Facebook and other sites, that the Linde’s African heritage somehow erases the racist underpinning of the performance, I am not convinced.
Watching the video I see only a grotesque presentation that mocks the real suffering of black women, and women of color in general across the globe. Furthermore, the presentation of the cake itself, the blacked face actor screaming, the exaggerated red lips and naked body harken back to stereotypes of old: the blackface minstrel performer, black faced caricatures of black women and men that became collectors items. Taking all of this in with the limited explanation of what he is supposedly concerned with (female genital mutilation), being feed the cake himself, and the laughing smiling faces and constant photographs; it is difficult to view this piece as either art or protest.
Nevertheless, it is not my goal to dominant discussion of this piece, or this topic. Yet and still, I am tired of the black female form once again being taken up as a representation of grotesquierie and spectacle. Watch this video for yourself, comment on this display and the presentation of this as art, but beware of the graphic nature:
Letisha Brown is PhD student in the Department of Sociology at UT-Austin. She is the 2011 winner of the Barbara A. Brown Outstanding Student Paper Award awarded by the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport. She received this honor for her paper, “The Spectacle of Blackness: Race, Representation and the Black Female Athlete.”