Caricature or pornography of violence?

Mikael Löfgren


Mikael Löfgren is a writer and human rights activist, cultural critic and lecturer. He has previously been editor at the cultural magazine Ord & Bild and at Swedish Television. Mikael has also worked as university lecturer in Cultural Studies and as dramaturge at Unga Klara theatre, Stockholm. He is currently teaching at Kulturverkstan, a higher vocational training programme for international cultural managers. He is also active as a freelance critic and cultural journalist in the daily Dagens Nyheter. Mikael has published books on various topics: postmodernism, football, Ship to Gaza, the labour market, the global justice movement, digitisation and copyright. His most recent books are No exceptions. The creation of value in small and mid-sized galleries of contemporary art (2015), Perspectives on Cultural Leadership and Narratives by Cultural Change Makers (the last two books are co-edited together with Karin Dalborg 2016). He has five children and lives on an island outside Gothenburg.


doi: 10.18278/aia.2.2.35


Swedish cultural politics became internationally renowned, or rather notorious, on April 15, 2012. Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth, the then Minister of Culture, had been invited by the Swedish National Association of Artists to celebrate World Art Day at Moderna Museet in Stockholm. The artist Makode Linde invited Adelsohn Liljeroth to have a piece of cake, the artist’s own creation that resembled a black woman’s torso. The artist, in blackface makeup, as the depicted African woman’s head, screamed and moaned as the Minister lunged her knife through the crotch area of the cake. In front of a laughing all-white audience, Adelsohn Liljeroth retorted to the artist that “your life will be better than this” (Aftonbladet 2012).

The reaction was immediate. Some claimed that the Minister had been lured into a trap in which anyone could have made the same mistake. But for Kenyan artist and activist Shailja Patel, it was obvious that the minister was guilty of “simulated clitoridectomy”. In an article in the pan-African online paper Pambazuka News, Patel argued that:

“What makes this cake episode so deeply offensive is the appropriation, both Linde and his audience, of African women’s bodies and experiences, while completely excluding real African women from the discourse. It is a pornography of violence.” (Pambazuka News 2012)

The artist rebutted by arguing that his work was confused with the picture of the minister of culture cutting the cake which had been widely shared in the media. Makode Linde explained that his art is based on personal experiences of living in a racist society:

“When caricature meets the romanticisation of the exotic and ideas about paradise collides with reality’s narrative of apartheid and oppression, new pictures and contexts arise which forces a racist view upon the observer.” (Aftonbladet)

The argument between Patel and Linde is typical for today’s socio-cultural climate. Iconoclasm and iconodulism are not of past cultural expressions, but rather are part of today’s social tug-of-war that globalization produces. The 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon may be interpreted as a form of iconoclasm. A particular type of baleful worship of images is practiced by xenophobic and far-right movements throughout Europe who, in order to awaken tribalistic sentiments, exploit nationalist myths and racist symbols. Another form of iconoclasm is exercised by those artists and cartoonists who, as a way of provoking or entertaining, make caricatures out of motifs that others perceive as holy.

Likewise, Linde retools mainstream cultural stereotypes in a manner similar to how singers and poets in the early days of the Workers’ Movement wrote satirical lyrics to well-known religious melodies. Patel also engages in iconoclasm by claiming the subordinate figure’s rights to one’s own voice and representation. One of her feminist predecessors includes Mary Richardson, who cut open Diego Vélasquez’ painting Rokeby Venus in 1914 at the National Gallery in London with the motivation: “Justice is an element of beauty as much as colour and outline on canvas.”

References

Linde, Makode. (2012) Tårtkalaset är ett uttryck mot rasism (The cake party is an expression against racism). Aftonbladet, April 19. http://www.aftonbladet.se/debatt/article14700358.ab

Patel, Shailja. (2012) The missing ingredient in Sweden’s racist-misogynist cake. Pambazuka News, April 19. http://www.pambazuka.org/governance/missing-ingredient-sweden’s-racist-misogynist-cake

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