The controversy over the “n–ger cake” put on display in Sweden as part of a World Art Day celebration has continued. Since the mass circulation of the images and videos of the celebration, much more information has surfaced about the cake and the artist — a black artist named Makode Aj Linde, whose art interrogates stereotypical images of people of African descent.
Ebony’s Jonathan Pitts-Wiley says that he was initially enraged about the display and changed his mind after taking a closer look at the meaning behind the cake. Pitts-Wiley now believes that Linde “nailed it.”
I get it, because after many commenters and friends on Facebook implored me to reconsider my position, I took a look at it again and thought about it more critically. I can see where Pitts-Wiley is coming from. While I do think that some aspects of the display are brilliant — like the subversive nature of being laughed at and eaten while on display for a powerful, white elite group, and Linde’s commentary on race and indifference — I still believe that Linde’s interrogation of this particular subject in this context is inappropriate. This type of critique is part of his artistic brand, but going this far as it relates to female circumcision and black women’s bodies is still too far for me.
Why too far? Simply because blackface, female circumcision, laughter and celebration are incongruent in my world. The laughter of the guests when viewing and eating the cake, which can be read as subversive, can also be read as blatant disrespect for black women’s bodies and the abuses that we have suffered at the hands of many, including our own people.
I have received criticism for critiquing a piece that a black artist created, as though a black artist should be immune to critique for creating artwork that is or may be interpreted as racist. Some claim because a black person has created this installation, I and others who were flabbergasted by this artwork don’t have the right to critique the racism, sexism and classism in the piece.
So what if he’s black? Just because it’s a black person doing it doesn’t mean he should be above reproach. While many argue that disenfranchised groups can’t be racist because they lack the power to be that way, I often argue that you can be racist despite lacking economic and political power. There are different types of capital, including cultural capital — language, images and, I would argue, art, which often imbue people with power.
And frankly, just because someone labels himself an artist doesn’t make it so; just as calling something art doesn’t make it art. While I do believe that Linde truly is an artist, I think that this performance piece goes too far, especially with its use of blackface. Sure, he’s the artist and can do what he wants. Linde could have accomplished the same outcome without it.
Some argue that Linde is Swedish and Americans like myself have taken the display out of context. Just as I have to consider the context of the art, so should the artist have to consider his audience. When something has the potential to be put on the Web or in the news for the world to see, then the audience becomes exponentially larger.
Having learned that Linde is black doesn’t make me less angry about the piece. It speaks to the practice in many countries of black men being given the opportunity to tell stories about black women through film, plays and art, while black women have to stand on the sidelines silent and then are assailed for critiquing the men who get to lambaste our experiences in the name of art.
I am the subject and the audience and can view this art work through my own personal lens. The media scholar in me gets it, but the black woman in me doesn’t appreciate it. The two aren’t always mutually exclusive, but in this case they are.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is editor-at-large for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.