Art vs Insult

It does not matter whether something is racist or sexist or Islamphobic or anything else. The only issue is control of the language as the key to controlling the policy and thus controlling people

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What to make of Makode Linde's screaming black cake?
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Charles Crawford
On 23 April 2012 09:21

Let’s face it, the screaming black cake created by Afro-Swedish artist Makode Linde has set a new global standard for ‘awareness-raising’ performance art. But what does it all mean?

Here are some video clips from Al Jazeera of the artist himself explaining the project.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that this is a very ‘Swedish’ event. Makode Linde is a relatively rare dark-skinned person in Sweden, and has built up a lively reputation for evoking vivid if not grotesque imagery of ‘blackness’ as arch post-modern anti-racist commentary on racist attitudes. See example here.

Plus, according to the Internet, Linde is not only a PoC (Person of Colour) – he’s gay too. So this adds a delicious extra resonance to his vivid creations. Let’s be honest: It does create a frisson of post-colonial guilty edginess watching the overwhelmingly white, progressive and female Swedes laughing nervously as Swedish Minister of Culture and Sports, Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth feeds the screaming cake’s head some of its own cakey flesh. Black Afro-Swede transgendered auto-cannibalism to decry female genital mutilation! How trangressive is that?

On the other hand, isn’t there also something creepy and crudely sexist about a male artist in comfortable Sweden making an elaborate joke about female genital mutilation, as if it to make prosperous white Swedes examine their attitudes to it when they are not exactly the problem here? Once again women’s problems in developing countries get dumped right at the bottom of the moral food chain. Or does the fact that Linde is a gay PoC make anything he does ipso facto ‘progressive’ enough? Linde tries to see off these arguments:

Linde says he created it to critique the Western tendency to point fingers at oppression in Africa, without examining its own racism, sexism and homophobia. ”Racism, oppression against woman, or homophobia can take place in Africa, in Europe, in Sweden, in anywhere,” Linde says. “By then labeling oppression to only be female circumcision or taking a certain form, I think that’s putting on blindfolds for seeing what oppression really is.”

Take the phrase Person of Colour itself:

Because the term people of color includes vastly different people with only the common distinction of not being white, it draws attention to the fundamental role of racialization in the US. It acts as "a recognition that certain people are racialized" and serves to emphasize "the importance of coalition" by "making connections between the ways different 'people of color' are racialized.”

If the idea is to help get rid of racism, isn’t it racist in itself to define the blotchy pinkness of the traditional European world as ‘colourless’? The answer to that is, of course, that the idea is not to get rid of racism but to use it to turn the historic tables on ‘whites’, by appropriating racist ideology of anti-miscegenation in extremist ‘black’ political causes:

Farrakhan then attempted to bring his rationale all together, saying “White folks don’t produce black children — except [if] it‘s a white woman with a black man or a black man with a white woman and that’s the end of your race. So you’re dying a natural death these days. And without an AK47 ’cause the brother ain’t shooting no blanks.”

Meanwhile woe betide any ‘white’ person who uses the word ‘nigger’ or even ‘negro’ to describe a PoC. Yet over on Twitter and in cool movies/TV shows (Pulp Fiction, The Wire) ‘niggaz’ proliferate within African-American dialogue as the word of choice to describe ‘black’ males.

The worst aspect of the Swedish racist cake imbroglio is its sheer phoniness. Swedish arts organisation KRO’s President Karin Willen has defended the cake:

“Makode places contemporary western ideas of the African paradise, its safety and The Wonderful Life in contrast to historical reality: a reality that deals in slavery, apartheid, and oppression … Freedom of expression is something we always have to protect and safeguard. In a free society we must be able to handle art that criticizes, questions and scrapes.”

Really?

Let’s imagine a Swedish cake which features a screaming Muslim gay man acting as the head of a female Muslim woman torso shrouded only in a confectionery burqa, which white Christians systematically eat to reveal the defenceless, naked cakey body underneath.

Bang! The so-called Muslim street across the Middle East and beyond would emit a convulsion of violence. Swedish embassies would go up in smoke. Emergency high-level meetings of EU Ministers would ‘call for calm’ and emit noises of sincere regret and apology for such blatant, unforgivable Islamophobia. Proclaiming or even defending the critical, questioning, scraping merit of such a fine artwork as an expression of freedom would not be high on the list of EU policy concerns.

Basically, we have entered a strange and mainly bad world where certain attitudes and expressions have been commandeered by some self-defining political communities. It does not matter whether something is racist or sexist or Islamphobic or anything else. The only issue is control of the language as the key to controlling the policy and thus controlling people: who decides? 

Charles Crawford is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. A former British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw, he is now a private consultant and writer: www.charlescrawford.biz. He tweets @charlescrawford

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