Let Them Eat Cake Also!

Was this performance really racist?!?

As far as I am concerned not at all, but it was a depiction of performing “Other” and an accurate reflection of the history of exhibiting cultures. And though this exhibit was about the social construct of race the notion that the artist was racist never crossed my mind. In fact, my immediate reaction was – WOW the art world in Sweden is finally getting global attention! And my second thought was I wish I would have been a co-curator!!

Cake Performance ~ Photo Credit: Makode Linde's Face Book Page
Cake Performance ~ Photo Credit: Makode Linde’s FaceBook

From an art historical perspective Makode Linde addresses issues regarding the history of museum exhibitions and spaces created for  so-called “Other” cultures. This performance piece brought so many things to mind and my first visual connection was to the Chicago World Fair of 1893. This was predominantly based on how Linde incorporated his Afromantic imagery into the performance.

Nineteenth century world fair exhibitions represented one of the greatest visual examples of America’s emerging racially constructed, and consequently divided, system. During the period of developing world fairs, sociologist and anthropologist conducted ethnographic field trips and concluded that the diversity among cultures was vast and that certain “races” were more advanced. Subsequently, they began applying hierarchical ideas about race and culture and visually displayed these ideas in world fair exhibits. Therefore the cake performance is a Post-Colonial response to earlier world fair exhibits. But Linde’s performance was multi-layered and I perceived it as emulating the history of exhibiting “Other”.

Igorot Village ~ Photo Credit: All the World's Fair
Igorot Village ~ Photo Credit: All the World’s Fair

Linde’s masterfully, complex performance incorporated several visual examples, the second being “Hottentot Venus”. Politically speaking it was reported that he was addressing female circumcision but this cake was also reminiscent to the historical exhibits of Saartjie (Sarah) Baartman, a South African woman who was displayed as the “Hottentot Venus” in London and Paris during the 19th century. This is evident in the design of the cake through the breast and stomach, but also through the necklace and the reference to the use of his Afromantics.

Saartjie (Sarah) Baartman
Saartjie (Sarah) Baartman ~ Photo Credit: New York Times

In addition, Linde’s body was boxed in during the entire exhibit referencing the concept of being confined both physically and emotionally which further connects the notion of objectification. This is visually comparable to the story of Henry “Box” Brown, who escaped slavery by being placed into a crate and shipped from Virginia to Philadelphia for the sake of freedom.

Henry Box Brown ~ Photo Credit: Music is Life Entertainment
Henry Box Brown ~ Photo Credit: Music is Life Entertainment

And finally, the audience participation is comparable to that of the Post-Colonial performance piece Year of the White Bear: Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit… in which Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña respond to the legacy of ethnographic exhibitions and world fair displays of Brown cultures.  In terms of contemporary pieces this performance is most comparable to Linde’s. All three artists are aware of the Eurocentric discipline within Western art history and these performances are based on notions of identity and the experience of being “Other”.

Year of the White Bear: Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit ~ Photo Credit: Coco Fusco.com
Year of the White Bear: Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit…~ Photo Credit: Coco Fusco.com

This piece is a representation of the history of exhibitions and the hierarchical display of culture (or race) and it was refreshing to see a Swedish artist’s performance raising questions about race and identity within museum exhibitions. So again I ask, was this performance (including the artist and the participants) racist? The answer is no!

However, this performance does exemplify the legacy of performing “Other” for European audiences and this legacy has a long history with the same storyline featuring the same European, though usually male, protagonist and the same Non-European found object. So therefore this performance was about race, but it was about the history race, the history of constructing identities, and the politics within museum exhibitions and exhibiting cultures. This exhibit brought some much-needed attention to a country that has been left in the dark – in terms of Western art history and the global art world. So again I say let Sweden eat cake or at least some of the pie!

Footnotes & References …

Controversial Afro-Swedish Artist Speaks, “It’s a Disturbing Picture But It’s Also a Disturbing Subject”

Let Them Eat “N*****” Cake!

The Bodies Were Not Ours: And Other Writings

Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display

All the World’s a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876-1916

New York Times contributor Carol Elkins’ article A Life Exposed that reviews Rachel Holmes’s book African Queen: The Real Life of   Hottentot Venus.

puss och kram (xox)