At the World Art Day celebration on April 15 at the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm, gallery-goers ate cake. It was not unlike other art openings with nibbles, except that the so-called “cliterectomy cake” (officially, “Painful Cake”) was also a provocative piece of performance art.
With black icing and a blood-red interior, the cake was constructed to resemble the naked, seemingly pregnant, body of an African woman. The artist, Makode Linde, painted his face with minstrel-style makeup—eyes circled with white and a wide, grinning, red-rimmed mouth—and placed his own head atop the body of the cake to complete it. When Swedish Minister of Culture and Sports Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth cut the first slice, starting from the area that would have been the woman’s genitals, Linde began screaming and begging for mercy. As Liljeroth fed pieces of the cake to Linde, the surrounding crowd watched, laughed, and took pictures.
The cake was a statement on female genital mutilation (FGM), a practice performed mostly in Africa but also in parts of the Middle East and Asia. The World Health Organization defines it as “procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” This can involve removing part or all of the clitoris, cutting the inner or outer labia, or, at its most extreme, infibulation, when the clitoris and labia minora are removed and then the outer labia are stitched together to prevent penetration. FGM has no health benefits and can have severe consequences.
The motivations for performing FGM are varied: to quell desire and ensure chastity, to promote health and beauty, and to protect the family’s honor are among them. Generally performed by other women, and most frequently by a girl’s mother or aunt, FGM is not performed as punishment or torture but as a necessary coming-of-age ritual, a cleansing process. Some groups believe that there will be negative consequences if FGM is not performed—for example, that the clitoris would kill a man whose penis touches it or would kill an infant during childbirth.
Although a Westerner might automatically condemn the practice as inherently wrong to women, many feminist theorists have critiqued this interpretation. One such scholar, Rogaia Abusharaf, who in her article “Unmasking Tradition” interrogates the prioritization of FGM among feminist organizations as illogical and even ignorant.
“To African feminists, Western outrage about genital mutilation often seems misplaced,” suggests Abusharaf, citing “clean water, sanitation, education, and health care” as more urgent problems than FGM. She also argues that many major problems within the continent are a result of Western interventions, and thus FGM cannot be held separately from geographies of power, history, economics, or politics.
In this light, the museum’s claim that the cake was intended to “highlight the issue of female circumcision,” as they told Radio Sweden, is puzzling if not altogether unconvincing, and Linde, a Stockholm-born Swede of African descent, may have been targeting precisely that attitude towards the topic. When asked why he chose female genital cutting as subject for his cake, he said he wanted to critically assess the focus on FGM as the sole issue facing African women, for “by 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.” A noble goal, but it is less clear whether or not his intention excuses the visually disturbing elements of the installation.
FGM is certainly a focus of NGOs and the Swedish government, which banned the practice in 1982. Sweden has taken up this cause not because of the prevalence of the practice within the country (since the introduction of the ban, only two cases involving FGM were brought before court) but more likely in response to increased immigration from Africa and an attempt to identify and respond to non-Western issues. The attention to FGM in Sweden has consequences, such as the frequency of pelvic exams performed on young girls without their consent under the pretence of checking that they have not undergone FGM and the ample potential for stigmatization of immigrant groups—many NGO staff members in Sweden are trained specifically on FGM in connection with immigrant populations.
After controversy began to brew, Liljeroth, the now famous cake-cutter and Cultural Minster, released a statement defending her participation and the piece despite harsh criticism of both: “Art must … be allowed room to provoke and pose uncomfortable questions. As I emphasized in my speech on Sunday, it is therefore imperative that we defend freedom of expression and freedom of art—even when it causes offense.”
The museum’s administration and Liljeroth may not be as ignorant of the implications of Linde’s piece as these comments suggest. What’s more likely is that they’re trying to cover for their mistake: Liljeroth said she did not have a chance to view the cake prior to the event. Linde, on the other hand, was aware that Liljeroth, who has campaigned extensively against FGM, would be cutting the cake—raising the possibility that he took her presence and, more broadly, Sweden’s approach to FGM, into account when designing the cake.
But whether or not Liljeroth knew what she was getting into matters little to many critics of the piece. The Association for African Swedes called for Liljeroth to resign over what spokesperson Kitimbwa Sabuni called “a racist spectacle,” according to The Local. Like many others, Sabuni challenged the idea that drawing attention to an issue like female genital mutilation can be accomplished through what he called “a cake representing a racist caricature of a black woman complete with blackface.”
Other official responses have been equally condemning: in an Al Jazeera interview, Mariam Osman Sherifay of the Swedish Centre expressed her disbelief that “Still in the 21st century we haven’t dealt with the stereotypical notions of Africans that seem to have been passed on by heredity in Swedish mentality.” However, Liljeroth has no intention of resigning and has not been asked to do so by the Swedish government.
When Linde was invited along with several other artists to create birthday cakes for the 75th anniversary of the Swedish picture artists professional organization, KRO, Linde decided to group the cake in with his ongoing art series, called Afromantics. The series explores “the image of blackness and criticizing different ideas of black identity,” Linde told Al Jazeera. “I’ve been doing this by revamping the blackface into different forms and thereby critiquing it.” He also told Radio Sweden that the piece is being misunderstood by people who “haven’t followed my artistry and do not understand what my work is about.” Given that many who saw images of his cake would not know about his past work, it seems unlikely that Linde was actively trying to avoid such a misunderstanding, but perhaps was catering to it.
Indeed, it was only after the fact, in his interview with Al Jazeera, that Linde confessed his intention was not simply to “highlight the issue of female circumcision,” as the museum claimed, but to complicate it and to explore black identity and the relationship between the West and so-called third-world countries.
With this understanding, the possibility emerges that Linde intentionally facilitated the opportunity for the creation of a certain image—affluent, white Western women performing female genital mutilation and consuming an African woman’s body—in order to provoke a much more complicated dialogue. The cake may be intentional satire of a Western savior complex, or as Swedish art critic Anders Rydell put it, a “cunningly-set artistic mousetrap,” rather than the ignorant work of an attention-hungry artist.
Comments on various articles about the event reveal some of the different interpretations of Linde and his cake. Some people believe that the piece is disturbing and offensive—period. Then there are those like Jondea Smith, who believe the mousetrap theory that Linde’s intention was to have “thousands of images circulating media of the ‘mistresses of wealth,’ gleefully gorging themselves on the consummate sweetness of Africa,” which is “absolute genius.” In the minority are those like Natalie Bennett, who agree that the meaning does have more layers than is immediately evident, but don’t “get the sense that he even ‘gets’ the layers of the performance.”
What would it mean if, in fact, Linde didn’t “get it?” The dialogue prompted by the controversial work of art could be considered productive notwithstanding the artist’s intentions, or perhaps, a dialogue was exactly what the artist intended to create. The attendees at the event, judging by the cheering and photo-taking that accompanied the cake-eating, may have missed the layers of meaning. But as this was the intended audience, an alternate interpretation seems less likely.
It should be noted that Linde is not just an artist, but also a highly successful club promoter and DJ, and his art finds its way into his place in the public eye. Linde has been posting links to articles about the controversy to his Facebook since the event. On April 17, he posted a picture of the half-eaten cake to his Facebook with the following caption: “This is after getting my vagaga [sic] 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.”
SOPHIA SEAWELL B’14 never liked red velvet anyway.