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“Racist” cake leaves a bad taste

Sweden’s Minister for Cultural Affairs, Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth, landed in trouble over the weekend at an event held at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet to mark World Art Day on 15 April.

One of the features of the event was an installation by controversial African-Swedish artist Makode Aj Linde, featuring a cake shaped like a naked black woman’s torso, complete with genitalia and with Linde’s own head – blacked-up – pushed through the table to complete the depiction. Liljeroth was invited to cut the cake at the “clitoris” (with Linde adding screams as she did it) to highlight the issue of female genital mutilation.

The response from the African-Swedish Association was damning, condemning the event as “a racist spectacle” and Liljeroth’s participation as showing “incompetence and lack of judgment”. The Association called for her to resign.

Liljeroth herself sympathised with the criticisms but denied she had done anything wrong and suggested that any confusion was down to the artist, who she said claimed that “it challenges a romanticised and exoticised view from the west about something that is really about violence and racism”. She added that “art needs to be provocative”.

The story received little coverage in the UK national press, although two newspapers from opposite ends of the political spectrum, The Guardian and the Daily Mail did feature it – both with videos.

The Guardian: Swedish minister denies claims of racism over black woman cake stunt
Daily Mail: ‘A tasteless, racist spectacle': Swedish minister in race row…

There’s been a lot of online criticism about it since. Much of it appears to be kneejerk reaction – “It’s a bunch of privileged white people cutting into a caricature of a black woman and laughing and joking about it, therefore it’s racist” – ignoring any message or provocation the artist may have had intended his piece to put across.

That said, there are so many different possible messages that it’s impossible to pin down any single one as the artist’s intention. It may be that he was trying to highlight the issue of female genital mutilation and how the societies performing it are happy to ignore the suffering they cause in the pursuit of their own gratification. On the other hand, it could be that he was having a sly poke at Western attitudes towards it – “Isn’t it terrible what they do to all those black women? Here, have some more cake”.

Whatever the message, one question it raises – yet again – is where the line falls between provocative art and sensation-seeking bad taste. Linde seems to have crossed that line.

What do you think? Was Linde’s installation racist, art, both or neither? And should Liljeroth step down? Have your say!
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