Swedish Culture Minister cuts blackface cake, causes scandal
So thi shocking bit of news has been making the rounds lately. Swedish Minister of Culture Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth was marking World Art Day in Stockholm n April 15 and they were also celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Swedish Art Organization. So several artists were invited to make birthday cakes.
Makode Linde, an Afro-Swedish artist, made this cake (also playing the head and screaming in pain each time someone cut from it):
The performance itself and the particpation by the Minister has been roundly condemned in Sweden and online:
"In our view, this simply adds to the mockery of racism in Sweden," Kitimbwa Sabuni, spokesperson for the National Afro-Swedish Association (Afrosvenskarnas riksförbund) told The Local.
"This was a racist spectacle."
I think there is more to this story than outrage. Liljeroth is a horrible person and a right-wing politician (for Sweden). She is an awful culture minister. She once said she doesn't use libraries because she prefers to buy books. Even so, as a Swedish friend of mine said:
If you look at the pictures, you see that it's almost all middle-to-upper-class middle-aged white people at the event. Laughing nervously, since they do probably see the problematic nature of the piece. (But taking pictures with their camera phones?!) I guess the artist did a good job on laying bare racist and sexist structures in Swedish society.
Even better is this interview on Al-Jazeera with the artist, as he explains his piece (my transcription):
I think a lot of people saw some images taken during the performance...online and took the images out of [their] context. And they accused me and the culture minister to be racists [instead of being] against racism criticizing different aspects of just this subject. I think people who are upset about the art piece..I think they misunderstood the intention or the agenda of me as an artist
Linde actually uses blackface as his main touchstone in his art. Blackface has a long and complex history that is far more complicated than "blackface bad" (at least in art, not so much with Ted Danson). His explanation (Linde's, not Danson's) is quite compelling:
There are many different entires to this piece. Because of the medium, which is cake, mutilation input of the piece was quite natural, since you have to cut it up...Since I'm dealing with prejudice or ideas about black identity, and the theme for the birthday celebration was censorship and freedom of speech, I think this piece was very appropriate. Becasue a lot of prejudice that concerns black identity is female circumcision. It's something about oppression against women and this oppression only takes place in Black Africa. But [female circumcision] is only one oppression and one racism and one oppression against women and homphobia and [it can] take different forms in Africa or in Europe or in Sweden or in anywhere. So by labelling oppression to only be female circumscision or taking a certain form, I think that's putting on blindfolds for seeing what oppression really is.
I don't want to disavow the trauma that has been felt by black folk across the web, whose reactions have largely been visceral and disgusted. But I think we should also respect the artist's autonomy and message.