Thursday, 19 April 2012

Let them eat cake

On World Art Day, April 15, 2012, the Swedish Minister of Culture and Sports, Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth, participated in an interactive art installation at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. The installation by the artist, Makode Aj Linde, was intended to highlight the issue of female circumcision in Africa and consisted of a large red velvet cake that was covered by dark chocolate and shaped to look like the torso of an African woman. The artist referred to it as his “genital mutilation cake” and his black faced minstrel head screamed “NO! NO!” as the minister strategically cut a slice from the clitoris area of the cake and laughingly fed it to the artist. The picture doesn’t really do the scene justice but YouTube has banned the video; however, you can watch it here.  According to the artist, the minister said to him, “Your life will be better after this,” before performing the amateur genital surgery using a silver carving knife. She later defended her action on the grounds that she wanted to protect freedom of artistic expression and the right to provoke. Critics had misinterpreted the situation. As of yesterday she has refused to resign and has made the following statement on the Swedish Ministry of Culture’s website:
World Art Day took place on Sunday and the Swedish Artists' National Organization celebrated its 75th anniversary at Moderna Museet. The theme for the event was freedom of expression, the struggle against censorship and art's freedom to challenge and provoke.
As part of the event, artists Peter Johansson, Lisa Jonasson, Marianne Lindberg De Geer, Makode AJ Linde and Galleri Syster were invited to create a work of art in the form of a cake. As the opening speaker, I was asked to cut a piece of Makode Linde's creation. Given the discussions that have followed, I want to take this opportunity to give my view on the matter. 
The actual purpose of World Art Day was to discuss and highlight the role of art in society. Our national cultural policy assumes that culture shall be an independent force based on the freedom of expression. Art must therefore be allowed room to provoke and pose uncomfortable questions. As I emphasised in my speech on Sunday, it is therefore imperative that we defend freedom of expression and freedom of art - even when it causes offence.
I am the first to agree that Makode Linde's piece is highly provocative since it deliberately reflects a racist stereotype. But the actual intent of the piece - and Makode Linde's artistry - is to challenge the traditional image of racism, abuse and oppression through provocation. 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. The artistic intent was the exact opposite.
As Minister for Culture it is my responsibility to safeguard the conditions for and independence of art and culture. At the same time, it is also my job to uphold the democratic values that counter racism, intolerance and xenophobia.
I chose to open World Art Day to turn the spotlight on art and freedom of expression. The Swedish Artists' National Organization chose in turn to highlight Makode Linde to bring attention to his anti-racist artistry. Through the ceremony, however, I became personally involved in Makode Linde's highly provocative form of expression.
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.
Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth

Swedes have often been oblivious to racism such as in 2009 when a neighborhood in the southern Swedish city of Karlstad had its name changed from Negern (=”Negro”) after public criticism. This situation with its overtones of ritualistic cannibalism is definitely not appropriate even under the purview, freedom of artistic expression.  In 2009, there were just over a hundred thousand Swedes of African descent and although Africans have lived in Sweden since 1300, most of the current population consists of political refugees from Sub-Saharan Africa, the majority from Somalia. Two Afro-Swedes were elected to the Swedish Parliament in the 2001 national election. Racism is really quite prevalent in Sweden. The following is a quote from the website of a local Swedish Democrat politician, Per T K Wahlberg:
"For many thousands of years, the Negro could chill out in the heat, eat some bananas, rape some passing woman or child, fight with other negro males and eat them up, play the drums a little, run around a bit, catch an antelope, eat a few bananas, fuck a bit, get drunk on fermented fruits or herbs, and so on. This has been going on for millennia without any evolutionary pressure in the form of environmental factors forcing the Negro to develop in another direction."
This topic encompasses issues of gender, dominance and racism. Any comments would be appreciated.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, well, it is outrageous but then, I am not surprised -- it is Sweden.