by Charlie Crooijmans
Last week a cake in the shape of a stereotypical depiction of an African woman turned out to be food for discussion. Swedish Minister of Culture Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth started an event about freedom of expression by cutting the lower part of the cake. While she did, all smiles, the head started to scream. The message of the action was against female genital mutilation suffered by women across the African continent. Afro-Swedish artists Makode Linde was commissioned to make an artwork for the 75th anniversary of the Swedish Artists’ National Organisation at Moderna Museet on April 15. The purpose of the work was to make the audience uncomfortable. The event itself was about freedom of expression, the struggle against censorship and the freedom of art. The Afro-Swedish population, however, wasn’t very pleased with the role of the Minister of Culture. According to Afrosvenskarnas Riksförbund, it is an act of racism and Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth should step down.
On the website of the Swedish government, she gives a statement,
Makode Linde’s art is motivated by anti-racism. However, the work employs a strong and provocative mode of expression that is open to misinterpretation. I deeply regret it if my involvement was interpreted by some as an expression of racism or intolerance. The artistic intent was the very opposite, as was my own participation in World Art Day.
She welcomes talking with the African Swedish National Association on how intolerance, racism and discrimination can be countered.
Not only the Afro-Swedish were offended. The Black Feminists from the UK wrote an open letter to the Minister of Culture.
Contemporary forms of oppression do not routinely force people to submit. Instead, they manufacture consent for domination so that we lose our ability to question and thus collude in our own subordination. (Patricia Hill-Collins, Black Feminist Scholar)
They also do not agree with the artist’s intentions.
No one, including the artist, seems to have consulted Black African women at the forefront of the movement to end the practice of female genital cutting, often with little resources and in direct and dangerous conflict with their own communities. We echo Shailja Patel in stating: ‘What makes the cake episode so deeply offensive is the appropriation, by both artist and his audience, of African women’s bodies and experiences, while completely excluding real African women from the discourse. It is a pornography of violence.’
This incident brings to mind the movie Black Venus (2010) directed by Abdellatif Kechiche. As a spectator it was highly uncomfortable to watch the exploitation of the South African Saartje Baartman’s body and soul in Europe. We simply cannot hide the fact that racism is an ineradicable feature of humanity. Civilizations need to be constantly aware of this.