Stopping female circumcision is not a piece of cake
Sweden is the latest – and, some might say, the unlikeliest – place to be the subject of a race storm. But here we are. Makode Linde, an artist of Swedish and African heritage, had been invited to make a cake for a World Art Day event in Stockholm: the cake was to be cut by Sweden’s culture minister, Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth. Linde thought that he would staying true to his career’s themes of exploring prejudice, and so he made a cake shaped like the headless torso of a naked African woman with a noose round her neck. He then blacked up his face, lay down so that his head now rested atop the torso, and waited for Liljeroth to cut the cake.
Lijeroth wandered over to the cake, and carved out a slice from its base, in its genital area. As soon as she did so, Linde released a bloodcurdling scream: and suddenly we had an image that would go viral on social media: a white European performing a circumcision on a black African woman. Worse still, the image was accompanied by what seemed to be laughter from an all-white audience.
Many people found this unsettling viewing, and called it racist. Several others called it misogynistic. Teju Cole, the novelist and essayist, tweeted twelve thoughts on the issue. Over at the Africa Is A Country blog, Johan Palme considered Linde’s act to be “a brilliant staging of structural racism and post-colonial existence”. Amid this furore, I watched an interview with Linde on YouTube, to see what the artist himself had to say on the issue.
Linde felt that his work had been taken out of context. “A lot of prejudice that concerns black identity,” he explained, “is that female circumcision is because of oppression against women, and that female circumcision only happens in Africa.”
He continued: “But the oppression is one oppression, [whether it’s] racism, or oppression against women, in Africa, in Europe, in Sweden…anywhere. [So] by then labelling oppression to be only female circumcision…I think that’s putting on blindfolds for seeing what oppression really is.”
Linde’s exposure of the prejudice among the watching audience was spectacular. Listening to the onlookers’ mirth – which, if we are to be charitable, may have been uneasy – I nevertheless thought that this was a scene more akin to King Leopold’s Belgium than Stockholm in 2012. Given that it is a city I have been to on several occasions, and which I love, I was perturbed by what I saw and heard. It was entirely at odds with my experience, and was a sign that Sweden, though among the most progressive of Western European states, has no room for complacency on this issue.
But I think that there is a problem with Linde’s logic. If his concern was to show that female circumcision did not only happen in Africa, then it’s difficult to see why the woman was as stereotypical an image of an African woman as could be: bulging eyes, bright red lips, like something you’d have expected Hergé to doodle in the margins of a Tintin comic. This was not a stereotype exploded, but utterly, thoroughly reinforced: circumcision as minstrel show.
Worse still, the black-white dichotomy of the video bears little resemblance to the thoughtful, cross-cultural work being done to address the complex issue of female circumcision in both the UK and Africa. From Linde’s testimony, it seems that his intention was not to be racist or sexist, but to provoke and to inform. On that view, it looks as though he left his job only half-done.Tagged in: Johan Palme, Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth, Makode Linde, sweden, Teju Cole
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