The artist behind the genital mutilation cake exhibit at a recent Swedish event responds to the backlash:
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.
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.
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 an 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.
Here is the problem at the root of all the dust-ups about racist interpretations of advertisements, artwork and situations that may not have had racist intentions:
We truly do live in a global village now. An ad, a piece of art or even a simple comment that may seem innocuous in one country can be interpreted in an entirely different way elsewhere. This is especially true when dealing with a subject as vast and deeply affecting as racism.
Now, obviously, art has the right to be provocative and shocking, some of the best pieces get their point across in just this way. However, that does not absolve the artist of the responsibility of seriously considering how his work is going to be interpreted. Particularly if the issue addressed is serious and relates to a global audience. If the message of a piece designed to call attention to racism is being widely perceived as racist, then the artist needs to re-examine the presentation. What he/she doesn’t get to do is to retreat to a point of familiarity and declare: “Well, they get it where I come from” or “We don’t take the issue that seriously here.”
Tough. When you make something and put it out there, you take responsibility for the message. You cannot control how the message is received, but when it comes time to explain the message (particularly when it comes to a topic this serious) you have to be able to do better than “you just didn’t get it”.