Makode Linde: Let Them Eat 'Painful Cake'?

That good art is purely subjective is a debatable argument in the arts community; particularly since a great deal of objectivity goes into creating insightful work that will appeal to art enthusiasts. That aside, I’m not sure how much insightful objectivity went into artist Makode Linde’s art installation piece, “Painful Cake”.

In an unsettling, macabre, seemingly racio-misogynist and thoughtless depiction of Female Genital Mutilation during an April 15th World Art Day event, at Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Linde reportedly decided to highlight the issue of female genital mutilation by inserting himself into a cake shaped like a naked African woman with a distended belly, as the head. With his face covered in crude minstrel makeup Linde, an Afro-Swedish man, yelled out in pain each time event revelers gleefully cut a slice from the cake. Swedish Minister of Culture Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth kicked off the clitoridectomy by cutting a slice from the bottom (where the clitoris would be), smiling her way through Linde’s shrill performance. The artist and Culture Minister incited the ire of the National Afro-Swedish Association, who demanded that Liljeroth resign for participating in the spectacle,
"According to the Moderna Museet, 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," Kitimbwa Sabuni, the spokesperson for the National Afro-Swedish Association told the The Local.  
“One cannot see how it benefits those people to degrade them in this way with racist caricatures in this kind of mocking spectacle.”
Sabuni argues that the Minister of Culture’s participation in the event, which he describes as having “cannibalistic overtones”, shows poor judgment for someone in her position...
"Her participation, as she laughs, drinks, and eats cake, merely adds to the insult against people who suffer from racist taunts and against women affected by circumcision.” He said. “We have no confidence in her any longer.”
In a patronizing and dismissive response to the National Afro-Swedish Association’s concerns, Liljeroth argued that the organization’s anger and disappointment was misdirected at her instead of the artist in question, and was unwarranted,
"I was invited to speak at World Art Day about art's freedom and the right to provoke. And then they wanted me to cut the cake. [He] claims that it challenges a romanticized and exoticized view from the west about something that is really about violence and racism. Art needs to be provocative."
Makode Linde seemed to be pleased by the attention and conversations his exhibit has provoked. On his Facebook page, he described an image from the exhibit, “This is after getting my vagaga mutilated by the minister of culture, Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth. Before cutting me up she whispered, 'Your life will be better after this' in my ear."

A comment that doesn't seem to convey any genuine sentiment of empathy towards raising awareness about FGM.

While art is indeed supposed to provoke and encourage discourse, I’m not exactly sure what to make of Makode Linde’s art installation, as I’m not familiar with his body of work or the feeling any of it is supposed to elicit, and have just familiarized myself with it and him since this performance piece. I will say that the image of an Afro-Euro man, in Minstrel makeup, portraying an African woman who's been subjected to FGM as a caricature for a predominantly white audience, is discomfiting, regardless of the intent since the impact seems to disturb in all the wrong ways. Linde's message of awareness seemed to be muffled and lost amid the sea of laughing and smiling European faces; none of which showed any semblance of having grasped what the display was supposed to stand for. Perhaps the artist set out to intentionally evoke the dispassionate reaction from event goers, to prove a point.

Regardless of his recurring series and claim that folks have taken his work out of context, it doesn't mean that those of us who have just come to learn about Linde’s work through this one instance, shouldn't ask pointed questions or dismantle why he took this approach in this setting, to prompt discourse on European bigotry and the abuse of Black female bodies. Is the artist truly trying to raise awareness about issues of race, stereotypes, anti-African bias and post-colonialism? Or is he merely looking to shock his audience and gain more attention for himself? To not expect a visceral reaction to such a disconcerting interpretation of a Black woman’s body being defiled, is unrealistic; especially since the history of the abuse and dissection  of Black women's bodies is well documented and has left an indelible mark that still hurts.

In any event, as thought provoking or highly charged  as it can be, art isn't some intangible idea that's beyond being grasped or understood (by those of us open to understanding it), nor is it above critique. While presenting her work from a different lens, controversial Black-American artist Kara Walker manages to successfully stoke similar dialogues about  race, gender, and identity without her commentary getting lost in translation, despite how controversial it can be. But alas, the deconstruction of racial politics in Europe is different than how we unpack race here in America where conversations tend to unfold with a bit more nuance and consideration for history.

If Linde's goal was to highlight white western society's inclination towards acting unsympathetic and dismissive towards the marginalization of Black women and people of the African Diaspora, then the crowd at the Moderna Museet definitely proved him right and Linde was successful. But since Makode Linde and his (mostly white and white-acculturated) apologists have chosen to be willfully obtuse about why the performance lacked awareness and why the museum crowd's giddy reaction to eating 'Painful Cake' is problematic, then I've got nothing else to offer. So, I'll go ahead and just tick off the FAIL box since I failed to see any subtlety or thoughtfulness in Linde's controversial work and remain confused by Linde's predominantly white audience's gleeful reaction to what the cake purportedly represented.