Flash from the past

Here is a re-post of a response I wrote to a discussion following an article on Hyperallergic back in 2012. The topic was a highly controversial “performance” by Swedish artist Makode Linde which I and many others found deeply disturbing. My original response was more rambling (and included several snide remarks which I have removed here) but I still like it. I remember it as a an important piece to write because of the arguments I was able to articulate. This was later reinforced by some of the replies I received, especially one from the moniker MsArt62, whose first sentence was: “As an African American woman and artist over 60 years old, I want to commend you on reading this issue spot-on!”


Here it is, in full:

I have still to read a thorough analysis of the actual performance that took place at this event but at the heart of the matter, there’s a lot more going on than the cutting and gorging of a “racist cake.” It may not ever be possible to entirely grasp the complex web of history, culture, art, several kinds of social stereotypes, and local as well as international politics that informs this event, but it wouldn’t be right not to try. I’m taking a stab at it.

In the interview with Linde on Hyperallergic.com (one of the few interviews I’ve come across), the artist is quoted as saying: “If it is something that Americans take serious [it] is post-colonialism 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 [for] Afro-Swedes [we] look at it as one more degree removed.

This is a reasonable claim: Sweden, like every country, has its own specific history and culture, and learned history is very different from lived history. So the artist is using a borrowed visual language; the black-face is virtually without any specific past in Sweden, a country with no history of African slaves. One can only assume that this is a conscious choice. In the same interview however it becomes rather clear that Linde doesn’t understand how highly charged the black-face stereotype is, as we go on to learn that 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.

I can’t help but wonder: if your art is about race, how can you possibly use the iconic black-face and at the same time completely overlook the ethnicity of your audience? To complicate matters further, the artist claims that this piece is really about bringing attention to female genital mutilation. As the term itself implies, FGM is primarily a gender issue — so why the old black-face? This is just skimming the surface of the issues with this performance, of course. Plenty can be said of the Minister of Culture who initially claimed “being tricked”, and who thereby represents herself as a government lackey without any individual responsibility. Is it really too much to ask that she stop and look for a second, or perhaps even ask a few counter-provocative questions, before participating in this event?

Making controversial art that provokes is absolutely fine by me and it’s fantastic when art actually reaches beyond its own little insular world and serves a greater purpose. But controversy by itself doesn’t guarantee any kind of thinking. Making art that is more than a one-liner and succeeds in raising difficult questions takes skill. It seems to me that both the artist and the audience at this event failed to do much critical thinking at all. And it is this naïveté that I find so unnerving — particularly when explained away as “a strain of Swedish humor that is very dark and cynical”.

The only part about this performance that is dark or cynical is the utter ignorance of its participants and their collective self-congratulatory satisfaction with themselves as champions of freedom of expression. Heroes in their own eyes, they miss a great opportunity to allow a piece of performance art ignite an important and truly nuanced debate about race, identity, and representation. The disappointing outcome of the debacle is of course that the debate never gets to where it supposedly was intended to go: to bring attention to the girls who have had their genitals mutilated and their lives ruined as a result of it.


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