- By Joshua Keating
Joshua Keating is associate editor at Foreign Policy and the editor of the Passport blog. He has worked as a researcher, editorial assistant, and deputy Web editor since joining the FP staff in 2007. In addition to being featured in Foreign Policy, his writing has been published by the Washington Post, Newsweek International, Radio Prague, the Center for Defense Information, and Romania's Adevarul newspaper. He has appeared as a commentator on CNN International, C-Span, ABC News, Al Jazeera, NPR, BBC radio, and others. A native of Brooklyn, New York, he studied comparative politics at Oberlin College.
If you spent some time on the Internet yesterday, you’ve probably seen it already — the photo of laughing Swedish culture minister Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth cutting into a cake designed as a racist caricature of an African woman. Or Jezebel succinctly put it, "Swedish Official Gleefully Cuts Racist Black Lady Cake, Delights Onlookers." More disturbingly, the cake was intended as a statement on female genital mutilation and Liljeroth was asked to whisper "Your life will be better after this!" before cutting into the crotch. The image has provoked outrage in Sweden’s black community and calls for Liljeroth’s resignation.
As it turns out, that may have been part of the idea. In a guest post at the always-worth-reading Africa Is A Country blog, Swedish music blogger Johan Palme gives some context for the event. Accoring to Palme, Lijeroth is "reviled by large parts of the art world for her culture-sceptic stance and for previously condemning provocative art in what many see as a kind of censorship," making the atmosphere already a bit tense at the celebration of World Art Day she was attending at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet:
The cake is wheeled out and uncovered. The crowd stares, tittering nervously. The culture minister is placed at the crotch end, and starts cutting into the cake – when suddenly the head starts screaming in pain. It’s the artist, Makode Linde, whose own painted head is placed as the head of the cake. The crowd’s tittering erupts in nervous laughter; the uncomfortable humour of the situation, the classic Swedish fear of conflict, triggered by the surprise sound and movement. Lena Adelsohn-Liljeroth tries to play along as best she can in what she sees as a “bizarre” situation, reciprocating the laughter.
And on the other side of the cake, placed in the narrow space in front of a glass wall, stands one of the minister’s fiercest critics, visual artist and provocateur Marianne Lindberg De Geer, camera at the ready. And she snaps pictures of the whole series of events, as the minister is egged into doing more outrageous things, performing for the crowd.
It’s of course no coincidence. The whole thing was carefully planned, a “mousetrap” as one Swedish artist puts it. And based on how much traction the picture of the event has garnered, it was a very efficient mousetrap indeed.
Who’s Makode Linde, who staged the whole event? He is a visual artist, and as such has continuously asked uncomfortable questions about race, racial stereotyping and his own position as a black man in a condescending elite art world. The golliwog figure is a consistent image in his artwork, being placed on everyday objects, on paintings grinning nervously at the king, gawking in horror from children’s faces, at times undergoing almost formalist destruction. But just as importantly: he’s a club promoter and DJ, one of Sweden’s most successful, who knows exactly how to manipulate crowds and their emotions.
Palme wonders if the picture of Liljeroth and crowd’s nervous reaction was actually the work of art here, rather than cake itself. The full post is well worth reading. You can still question Liljeroth’s reaction here, but what’s shown in the photo is a bit more complicated than a government minister laughing at a "Racist Black Lady Cake."