Thursday, April 19, 2012

Strange cake: Is the Swedish minister racist?

By guess blogger: Funmi Macaulay
Swedish culture minister Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth has come under fire since the photos and youtube video of her cutting a cake designed in the shape of a naked black woman in Stockholm to mark World Art Day went viral.
Liljeroth was pictured laughing and joking as she cut the macabre cake designed by Afro-Swedish artist Makode Aj Linde.  The treat featured a black woman’s naked torso with the artist’s own head, painted black, at the top.  Once cut open, the cake sponge was red, depicting blood.
The firestorm has come from many quarters, but the most vocal critics are members of  the Afro-Swedish community.  The National Afro-Swedish Association branded the event a ‘racist spectacle’.
 “In our view, this simply adds to the mockery of racism in Sweden.  According to the Moderna Museet (the art centre where the event was staged), the 'cake party' was meant to problematize female circumcision but how that is accomplished through a cake representing a racist caricature of a black woman complete with 'black face' is unclear.”
Jallow Momodou, a spokesman for the association, and national co-ordinator for the European Network Against Racism in Sweden, in an article published yesterday in The Guardian of UK, insists that “racism and racist depictions against black people are common in Sweden.”
To buttress his stand, he points to certain incidence in the past, including one in October 2010 where a white Swedish man went on a rampage in Malmö, shooting more than 20 people of colour and killing one.  “The killer was officially considered to be a lone wolf with psychological problems rather than a terrorist with racist motives, and he has still not been prosecuted,” he noted.
Momodou who narrated his experience with racial profiling as a black Swede, is calling for the minister’s resignation.  Another spokesperson of the National Afro-Swedish Association, Kitimbwa Sabuni, has also called for Liljeroth’s resignation.  It is the association’s position on the matter.  “Taking part in a racist manifestations masquerading as art is clearly crosses the line and can only be interpreted as the Minister of Culture supports the Moderna Museet’s racist prank,” Sabuni wrote.
The ongoing controversy re-echoes the age long debate about artistic licence.  It is often said that artists should not be held to the same moral standards as the rest of us.  The artist who made the cake has said he was using performance art to portray the horror of female genital mutilation (FGM), a practice that is still common in parts of Africa.  
I have watched the video and I must say I am not comfortable with it.  It offends my sensibility as a woman and oversimplifies the issue.  

I find it difficult to fix how the portrayal I saw in that video will help stop the problem it claims to be raising awareness of.  It celebrated the act rather than condemn it.  That those who gathered to show concern about a practice that clearly dehumanises womanhood, should entertain themselves with an art illustrating that, is itself condemnable.
My uneasiness is more with the artist than the minister.  His work is such an ugly grotesque representation of a human being.  Very appalling, sickening, deeply disturbing and shameful. Do you need to stage rape explicitly to an audience to win their sympathy against it?  I won’t deem Liljeroth a racist for what has happened.  
It is praiseworthy that she has acknowledged that. “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.  It is perfectly obvious that my role as minister differs from that of the artist. 
Provocation cannot and should not be an expression for those who have the trust and responsibility of Government representative. I therefore feel it is my responsibility to clarify that I am sincerely sorry if anyone has misinterpreted my participation and I welcome talks with the African Swedish National Association on how we can counter intolerance, racism and discrimination,” she noted in a statement today.  
Artist should balance their artistic licence with considerations about the freedom and dignity of others.  There is something unseemly when our artistic liberty translates to deliberate mistreatment of others.  You can be helping my cause by dehumanising me.

Funmi Macaulay is a New York-based African American.  

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