Back in April we were horrified by the image above. It seemed like the most incongruous grouping of elements: a black “woman” effigy cake; a white woman cutting the cake; the cake “woman” (played by a man) screaming; the white woman laughing…surrounded by grinning white onlookers. All of this taking place in Sweden and all of this as part of a celebration of art and also a statement about female genital mutilation, in Africa?!
We were upset; we were aghast; we wrote letters and called for action. And then we stopped caring. The image and the horror fell to the background and we were occupied with other concerns. Despite pressure from many people including protests and bomb threats, Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth, the Swedish Minister of Culture, never apologized or acknowledged any inappropriateness. Instead, she defended her actions and basically said that everyone should get a grip and not be so serious. The unfortunate thing is that no matter what she says, this is serious. Researching this piece of artwork, it is very clear that it was intended to be sensational and provocative. The artist, Makode Aj Linde, is unapologetic for his creative statement. He claims that it is his right to be able to express his feelings through is art. He considers the whole thing very personal. Although I don’t believe in censoring any art, I question making such a provocative piece of art the centerpiece of an exhibit and not having any regard whatsoever for the impact of that art on the people who view it.
Female genital mutilation is going on right now. Somewhere a young girl is being held down against her will and having her clitoris gouged out by men who do not believe it is right for a woman to derive pleasure from the sex act. It is sanctioned in some of these cultures as a rite of passage or a religious custom. Regardless, it is a barbaric and misogynistic practice by Western standards.
We have little power to change such practices without the careful and thoughtful consideration for indigenous culture. This is not only a question of women’s rights to rule their bodies, but a question of gender roles in cultures that we don’t understand. To our eyes, it looks simply like butchery, but it is deep in the cultural fabric and intra-gender relationships. In some ways this practice is as complicated, volatile and misunderstood as marriage equality is in our culture, but the inability to marry in a same gender relationship does not result in permanent maiming of an innocent victim. Regardless, female genital mutilation is not art and it certainly isn’t comedy.
The most disturbing part of the Swedish cake incident is that the two people most culpable are a man and a white woman. No one is threatening to cut off Makode Linde’s penis. Although he is of African decent and by reason of his social location (as expressed in interviews) a victim of other oppressions in his cultural homeland, he lives safely in Sweden where he can freely celebrate who and what he is and what he believes. Likewise Minister Liljeroth is a white woman in a society that is 90% white, where women possess nearly total equal rights. She has absolute control over her body and what she choses to do with it, particularly where her vagina is concerned. I would argue that neither of these people has any place in the discussion of female genital mutilation, unless they are going to use their glaring amount of privilege (be it maleness, whiteness, or Swedishness) to further the discussion toward ending this ghoulish practice.
So the Swedish Minister of Culture remains in her job, the artist goes on to make more work, and they both capitalize on the notoriety of this one incident. Meanwhile young women continue to be butchered in the name of male dominated societies. There must be better ways to use the privilege of creative expression.
An insightful open letter featured on MsAfropolitan website: http://www.msafropolitan.com/2012/04/an-open-letter-from-african-women-to-the-minister-of-culture-the-venus-hottentot-cake.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Msafropolitan+%28MsAfropolitan%29