I confess: if it hadn’t been for the fact that potions take forever to brew on Pottermore, I wouldn’t have come across Makode Linde. (And had they opened up Book Two, then I wouldn’t have bothered with potions. This is all particularly weird because I’m not really a Pottermaniac by any stretch of imagination, yet here I am, waiting for my potion to brew.) But the fact is, the cure for boils has a waiting time of about 40-odd minutes so the next thing you know, I’m watching a video of a man pretending to be a woman made of cake.
Sunday April 15th was World Art Day (who knew?). It was also the 75th anniversary of Sweden’s The Artist Organisation, which was being celebrated at Moderna Museet in Stockholm. A number of artists had been invited to make arty cakes for the event. The only one that is going to be remembered for a while is the one that Afro-Swedish artist, DJ and club promoter Makode Linde presented to the chief guest, the Swedish culture minister, Lena Adelesohn-Liljeroth. Liljeroth apparently has a reputation for being not particularly forgiving towards provocative art but I suspect even a reasonably liberal person would be startled if they were placed before a cake that is shaped like a naked human torso, handed a knife and told to start slicing the crotch area. Then, the moment she does so, the cake starts screaming. Because it turns out the body may be edible, but the head of the cake is Linde’s own. It’s just been painted to look exactly like the torso.
Sometime last year, the Indian actress Shabana Azmi was roundly criticised when the media found out that herher birthday cake was a miniature slum. Everyone was outraged that Azmi, who has solid Lefty pedigree, would behave in such a manner vaguely reminiscent of decadent aristocracy. But next to Linde’s cake, Azmi’s cutesy but expensive chocolate slum seems almost innocent. Linde’s cake and the performance of him screaming in pain every time someone cuts a slice looks horrific and absurd, particularly because the people doing the cutting are a) Caucasian and b) laughing as they cut or watch the cutting. Unsurprisingly, there’s been a lot of chatter about how racist this entire shebang was. Chances are, if Michelle Obama had somehow ended up cutting that cake, there wouldn’t be any accusations of racism flying about. If you think of it as a random event where a bunch of white people grin while slicing up a (screaming) cake shaped like a black woman, it is indeed somewhat nauseating. Think of it as a staged performance in an art gallery where an artist disguises himself and invites visitors to inflict symbolic violence upon his body, then the question isn’t if it’s uncomfortably provocative but whether or not this is an effective and artistic project.
[Edited to add: Girish, as usual, makes some good points in his blog post, notably the fact that art openings are events full of people who just have fun. Many of us in Mumbai smiled and cooed at art that made rather blatant references to Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism at the opening of Sophie Ernst's solo in Mumbai some years ago.]
Linde has been working on a series titled Afromantics since 2004. He describes it as an attempt to explore “different ideas of black identity”. He ‘revamped’ the black face to look like the golliwogg, possibly to highlight how the Caucasian West has seen Black people historically. The now-infamous cake is part of the Afromantics project. In addition to the grotesquely caricaturised face, Linde added an obvious reference to genital mutilation when he decided that visitors would come, cut the cake and eat it too (literally). It looked more like a rather graphic re-enactment of the colonisation of Africa to me. In case you were wondering, Sweden did have some colonies for a few years in what is present-day Ghana. However, as far as I recall, the Swedes only got to play Evil White Master for a decade or so before losing their African colonies to Denmark and the Dutch (if I wasn’t keeping one eye on my potion and one eye on writing this post, I’d check but there’s only so much multitasking a girl can do). Though I do think that if Linde seriously wanted to rub a country’s nose in its colonial history, then he should have organised this cake performance in Belgium.
If Linde’s aim was to make people sit up and pay attention, then this event was a great success. However, as dramatic as Linde’s performance may have been, I’m not particularly impressed by his work at an artistic level. His thought process seems to be juvenile and simplistic. Colonisation, Black identity, female genital mutilation — these are massive, complicated topics and if anything, I’m somewhat outraged that Linde thought he could throw all of them into one mixing bowl. It seems he relied on the spectacle being enough to keep people from noticing that it’s terribly problematic to revive the golliwogg as a racialised object, as it is to gloss over the fact that colonial violence was inflicted by an outsider while feminine genital mutilation is carried out by one’s own people. Not to mention how insensitive it is to appropriate a woman’s body and turn a violation as serious as feminine genital mutilation into an evening’s caricaturish entertainment.