I tried, I tried, I really tried. I tried not to post for a week or so, but I can’t do it. I can’t not comment on the things happening in the world – in my world. I am back at it. Back at my favorite habit. Reading, writing, feeling inspired and sharing it when I find the time and frame of mind to string my experiences and findings into something coherent. I am sewing also. I have to try and do all this, because this is the practice I’ve set up for myself. Straying from any element at this moment is potentially hazardous to all parts of my creative process, so I have to continue to use this space.
On to the meat and potatoes, rather, the icing on the cake:
About three weeks ago, this image starting circulating around the interwebs. It’s a photo of Makode Linde (the head), a Sweedish, male-bodied artist, being fed a piece of black woman cake he made by some white, Sweedish, official lady. There are also lots of scary white people laughing maniacally in the background. I imagine they are thinking things like:
“Yes, yes, cut her up!”
“Black woman cake, so funny!”
“Cut her up! Eat her up!”
“‘Kill the pig! Cut her throat! Kill the pig! Bash her in!”
The last quote is adapted from William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, which I find an overly adequate choice. A person would have to be shipwrecked, virtually isolated from all other humans, close to death, and delirious to make such art.
My worst nightmares are better than the above image. I can only hope and pray that Linde comprehends why this piece has sent shock waves through communities of African and African American women. It’s a shame too. He is seriously cute, but is now undatable.
I caught wind of it through Facebook, and over the past few weeks have been trying to formulate some kind of response. My feelings about this piece have been mixed. In one moment I appreciate what the artist is attempting, I appreciate his struggle to express aspects of his identity. Buuuut, in the next moment I clearly recognize how uninformed, misguided, and unthoughtful this exhibition was.
Just so everyone is up to speed, let me explain what is going on in the image pictured above.
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 (not really last Sunday, several weeks ago) 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.”
This Afro-Swede dude (Makode Linde),
has been making racist objects as a way to explore identity. He describes his work as taking “mass cultural symbols … and [giving] them a new black life by giving them black face. In the process robbing them of their original identity.”
Ok, really bad. Really, really bad. I could see how maybe…no. Just really bad. You can’t use black face to give something a “new black life.” It just doesn’t work. And why would you want to use blackness to rob anything…you’re only making it worse. The only place racist objects need to exist are in museums. Why in gods name are you creating more racist objects!?!? Black face is a symbol of the “old black life,” and making anything that references it is risky business. I need to restate that. Black face is a dirty, dirty trick. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. It’s the easiest way for an artist, or a television program, or a movie, or the academy awards to get attention. In my mind it’s equivalent to jumping the shark.
If at any point in my artistic career I feel tempted to use black face I will know that I have run out of good ideas, and maybe it’s time to start following a new trail of inspiration. We have to get more creative about the way we express black identity. Referring to a period of time when American blacks were caricatured, satirized, and dehumanized does not and cannot give them or us a “new black life.” It traps us in the confines of the same old game. Recognize this for what it is and move on to other ideas. If you don’t have any then maybe making racial art isn’t your thing. Try watercolor instead?
More From Hyperallergic:
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.
You think wrong! I don’t even want to explain or interpret here. All I can do is inhale deeply and exhale with a long sigh. I will say one word: intersectionalizm. This exhibit is the physical fucking manifestation of living in a world where feminism maps onto the identities of white women, and racism maps onto the identities of black men. In this world, black women become oppressed, unheard, spoken for, consumable, dissectable, human objects. I did, and continue to do, research on what it means, historically, to have my soul contained in this black, female body. Did you, Makode? No? Cause you don’t have a black, female body? Well then guess what? Shut the fuck up!
Let’s talk about the Hottentot Venus now. Remember her, folks? Saartjie Baartman, a South African Woman, a Khoisan, who was toured around Europe because of her massive behind. After she died, her shady manager sold her body to the Paris’ Natural History Museum, where scientists dissected and cast every part of her. Every part. Her vagina several times. The procedure was lead by an especially monstrous fellow, Georges Cuvier, who’s goal in life was to prove a scientific difference between the races, based mostly around observations of physical features. His theories and findings have been used as evidence of black inferiority, and black women’s sexual lasciviousness. This dude Cuvier was and is considered a serious scientist. He was also seriously racist. As Rachel Holmes writes in her book, The Hottentot Venus, while describing the night of the dissection:
At the center of the proceedings, the steely hearted Cuvier with his knives and saws concentrated deeply, cutting into Saartjie, naked, on her back on his anatomy bench. Cuvier had finally got what he desired: Saartjie horizontal, unresisting, under his knife.
Sound familiar, Makode? You fucking recreated the dissection of Saartjie Baartman, and this time you let everyone watch, and you let everyone eat, and you let everyone laugh. It’s disgusting. You let everyone consume her. And as much as I relate to her experience, you let everyone consume me. We are so not friends.
You claim that this piece was made to increase awareness about female genital mutilation, but tell me, how does a person who has been making racist objects suddenly decide to focus on female genital mutilation? It’s a big fucking jump if you ask me. It actually doesn’t make any sense. Why female genital mutilation? Why now? Why the mutilation of a black woman black face cake….ugh! I’m frustrated.
As an artist I know that my work spirals off, one idea inspires the next, it’s a clear and coherent path no matter where it leads. I do not buy this claim that your initial intention was to raise awareness of anything. I think your explanation is meaningless back peddling.
Unless eating this cake immediately made everyone who consumed it vomit violently and made their genitals swell painfully to the point of almost bursting open, then this cake could not possibly have the effect that the artist hoped for. I believe that form must follow intention.
If the intention is to help people understand pain and terror experienced by girls and women who undergo the procedure, then the cake must cause pain for everyone who interacts with it. It’s called empathy, you must elicit an empathetic response. Right now the only people that are feeling pain from this piece seem to be other black women, the group that you, Makode, are trying to help. Do your savior work somewhere else, buddy. Or maybe just leave the statements about female genital mutilation to people who’ve directly experienced it.
As David Bayles and Ted Orland state in Art and Fear:
Today, indeed, you can find urban white artists – people who could not reliably tell a coyote from a german shepard at a hundred feet – casually incorportating the figure of Coyote the Trickster into their work. A premise common to all such efforts is that power can be borrowed across space and time. It cannot. There’s a difference between meaning that is embodied and meaning that is referenced. As someone once said, no one should wear a Greek fisherman’s hat except a Greek fisherman.
So if you want to raise awareness about female genital mutilation, then find a group of women that have experienced it and support them. They will understand the pain, they will know how to communicate it to others. They will know when are where to incorporate humor. Find these communities of women, become an ally to them, encourage them to tell their stories, encourage their expressive practices, and in the meantime DO YOUR OWN FUCKING WORK.
More from the artist:
“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.
Aha! I totally see what the problem is. You are removed from the black American experience, but you are for some reason still trying to make art about it. That doesn’t make sense. Maybe you think the only way to be black is to experience and to relate to the kind of blackness that you see in America? A kind of blackness that is still dealing with the effects of the transatlantic slave trade, the pitfalls of abolition and reconstruction, the lynching, The Jim Crow, The Civil Rights Movement, Malcolm X and Martin Luther, Rosa Parks and Madam CJ, and even today very extreme effects of systemic racism that keeps thousands of black men in prison, black families without adequate housing and healthcare, and black women feeling trapped inside preconstructed roles, unable to move freely, unable to connect to their bodies, their desires, their pleasures. Unable to follow those inescapable human urges we all experience for fear of rejection.
You seem to be desperately trying to relate to us American blacks, but guess what? That’s not you. If there “aren’t that many similarities between Afro-Swedish culture and black American culture,” then stop trying to force the issue. Stop using black face, because black face is an American thing. You are using symbols you don’t understand. You need to do you, for all of us. Tell us what it’s like to have grown up without all of the fucked up shit that happened in America. Show us what is important to you. This will help us create a diverse and varied view of blackness, so the world knows that black does not equal slave, does not equal freak show, does not equal cut up and consumed, does not always equal American black. I am willing to accept that we’re different, but you have to show me how. Show us what you’re really made of. I promise, at the very least, that if you do it authentically, I will accept you.
From Art and Fear again:
You make good work by (among other things) making lots of work that isn’t very good, and gradually weeding out the parts that aren’t good, the parts that aren’t yours. It’s called feedback, and it’s the most direct route to learning about your own vision. It’s also called doing your work. After all, someone has to do your work, and your the closest person around.
So now you have my feedback. It’s time to do your own work, and I will promise to do mine. We’ll both make mistakes and we’ll both get it wrong, but we have to keep trying, cause maybe one of these times, we’ll get it right.
Learn. Learn from this mistake and learn from all mistakes. Search for your own voice, find your own vision. And maybe when you do that we can go on a date.
And ad and some art to bring it home:
Hank Willis Thomas