Controversial Afro-Swedish Artist Speaks, “It’s a Disturbing Picture But It’s Also a Disturbing Subject”
In the last few days, Afro-Swedish artist Makode Linde has learned the power of the viral web. His controversial cake performance at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet has ricocheted around the world and has garnered reactions of all types from support of his edgy gesture to raise awareness about female genital mutilation to the denunciation of the artist and the Swedish culture minister pictured in the event photos as racists. Linde spoke to Hyperallergic about the controversy and he was happy to explain the context for the piece and how commenters have not wanted to delve deeper into the work and what it has to say.
As one of the only Afro-Swedish artists it is perhaps no surprise that Linde has made race a central focus of his body of work. His Afromantics series, which began in 2004, totals roughly 700 sculptures. In Afromantics, his best known works, Linde paints black face on Western cultural icons. They are obviously about identity but with a shadowy sense of humor that feel discomforting in their absurdity. As one Swedish newspaper put it in 2009, “Linde Questions With Humor.”
“Within my art I try to raise a discussion and awareness about black identity and the diversity of it,” Linde says. “The [recent] discussions [about my cake piece] have been mostly if I or the culture minister are racist or not. I think it is a shallow analysis of the work. It’s easy to take any image and put it in the wrong context.”
Linde’s cake was one of five artist cakes — the others were by Peter Johansson, Lisa Jonasson, Marianne Lindberg De Geer and Galleri Syster — that doubled as an art installation at an event last Sunday which marked the 75th anniversary of the Swedish Artists Federation at Stockholm’s Moderna Museeet. It was his first showing at the famed modern art museum and he decided to build on his Afromantics series, which he describes as taking “mass cultural symbols … and then I give them a new black life by giving them black face. In the process robbing them of their original identity.”
“You can’t see the identity of the individual representations when you see them all together in blackface,” he says about the usual reactions he gets when he exhibits a grouping of his Afromantics sculptures. “You rob them of something and you force them to be something else.”
The artist is happy with the Modern Museet performance, which he says “went off the exact way I wanted it.” He explains that the Swedish culture minister’s presence was only announced to the artist 20 minutes before the event began but he was supportive of the idea of her cutting his cake, which featured him as the head. He thinks the images of his work can stand alone but her presence added a powerful element. He doesn’t understand the fixation that commenters have on the white figures all around and he seems legitimately surprised by the aggressiveness of commenters towards the audience. “I think it is wrong to call it racist because they are white women and I’m the only black person there,” he says.
The whole incident raises questions about cultural identity and the internet. In Sweden, Linde says, the project was mostly understood in the art world context it was performed. “In Stockholm, where I am from, the art world knows [about my work]. Ninety-nine percent of my pieces have a anti-racist context,” he says. ”I’m the first one to admit that it’s a disturbing picture but it’s also a disturbing subject. One of the main roles of art is to talk about these things and make people confront them in themselves.”
He says he was conscious of how it was presented and he worked on figuring out ways that will allow more people to see the image and how it will be transmitted to a bigger audience. He doesn’t appear to have been prepared for the online outcry.
Linde made an active decision to change the form of a polite cake ceremony into one that would generate awareness and discussion. “I wanted to change the form of what was going on and scream, react and beg for mercy,” he says.
The cake was created based on African fertility symbolism and he thinks he was able to convey the strength of the emotions. “Some people actually get it when I explain and show my other work. People try to lecture me on the history of blackface, I’m very aware of where it comes from. People seem to think I am unaware of postcolonialism but I’m facing the issue every day,” he says. “I think this issue is very different when you live in Stockholm versus in New York. There aren’t that many Afro-Scandinavian artists and it is important that people talk about this.”
Linde doesn’t understand the reaction of African Swedish National Association, which has asked the Swedish Culture Minister to resign. Linde says the group made no attempt to talk to him about the work and were very disinterested in what he had to say as an Afro-Swede. “I invited them to my studio to have a talk and show my art. They were not interested in having a dialogue with me,” he says. “When I met one person from the group [on another occasion] he said he was not interested. I asked him if he knew any Afro-Swedish artists, and he said ‘no,’ and then I asked ‘Why aren’t you interested in the one and only Afro-Swedish artist?’”
Linde’s dilemma with the cultural group should sound familiar to anyone who is part of cultural community whose spokespeople are often the most conservative and socially rigid flag bearers of a community. Often these cultural groups represent a smaller swathe of their communities than they claim to and they consider any examination or challenge of their cultural traditions as an attack.
The artist says the performance made him feel very vulnerable but he also considers the cake a sculpture much like the other works in his Afromantics series. He doesn’t think the Swedish cultural minister should resign. “She did nothing wrong, she was cool and she went for it,” he says. “She is strongly opinionated against racism. She seemed aware the kind of attention this would generate.”
Minister Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth released a strongly worded statement about the performance that clearly said, “Art must be allowed to provoke.” It goes on to say:
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 rasist [sic] 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.
In our interview, the artist sounded a little confused by the online outrage. “If people can get this upset from a woman cutting a cake, can’t they use that energy towards the real battle towards female genital multilation,” he says. “I do understand it is a serious subject and when you mix a serious subject with a light topic like cake people can get upset, but I like humor in my work because [the topics are] depressing and something I have to deal with everyday. People drop their defenses when they can joke about something.”
He also explained that he often infuses his work with a strain of Swedish humor that is very dark and cynical. “From my point of view this humor is a way to cope with horrible facts,” he says. “When I’m trying to tell my friends stories of horrible things I often use some humor to make it palatable.” He says Swedes, though he points out he doesn’t claim to speak for all Swedes, don’t like to take themselves too seriously.
Aside from the racial politics of his art work, Linde’s cake performance has also generated much needed debate about genital mutilation around the web. According to the World Health Organization, 100–140 million women have experienced female genital mutilation in the world and 92 million of those individuals are in Africa. The procedure is an arcane cultural relic that continues to emotionally and physically scar girls and young women.
What is lost on many commenters is that no matter what Linde has done, the acts of genital mutilation, which the piece was meant to highlight, are more grotesque than his performance could ever be. One New York Times article points out the gruesome realities:
“About 15 percent of those who undergo genital mutilation, mainly women in the Horn of Africa, suffer the most dangerous and extreme version, infibulation.
… All types of female circumcision have huge psychological and physical dangers. Some girls bleed to death during the operation, or die of tetanus or infection shortly after. But for infibulated women, the dangers are even greater. Many infibulated women suffer constant infections and other health problems because urine and blood back up. Their husbands must bring a knife to their wedding night to cut them open. Childbirth often is fatal for infibulated women and their babies, and their wounds make them much more vulnerable to the AIDS virus.”
Other commenters who have been critical of Linde’s performance also have a lack of understanding of Sweden and the cultural context in any discussion of the work. Sweden is over 95% “white” by American definitions of race, which means that almost any audience in Stockholm will be predominantly white so the image that is at the top of this article and being transmitted around the web is not out of the ordinarily for its racial make up. In our conversation, Linde also touches upon another issue that Americans don’t often discuss, the fact that their culture is often imposed on others and shapes their relationship to their local culture.
“If it is something that Americans take serious is postcolonialism and slavery and ‘not going there’ and making a bad joke about it. In Sweden, we don’t have the same slave trade history. But the same image of the slave dominates the images of Africans in Sweden but it is imposed image from outside. That’s also true for black Americans but for Afro-Swedes we look at it as one more degree removed.”
“Black American culture dominates the image of black culture in Sweden but there aren’t that many similarities between Afro-Swedish culture and black American culture. I’m making a generalization but it’s a reality that our image in our own culture is being influenced by the world outside,” he says.
In a Skype interview with Al Jazeera Linde made a point that we all should remember when confronted with stark and disturbing images that are hard to register mentally and emotionally:
“The vastness of social media encourages misinterpretation when pulled out of its context.”
On the flip side, the vastness of social media can also raise awareness about an issue that continues to torture millions of people the world over. It’s a double-edged sword and one that Linde is fully aware of nowadays.