Let Them Eat Cake

Context: Swedish minister in ‘racist’ cake controversy, Swedish Cultural Minister Eats ‘Nigger’ Cake.

The Swedish Minister of Culture, Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth, laughs as she cuts herself a slice of the ‘African tribal woman’ cake, part of an installation by Makode Linde.

I am appalled — as I frequently enjoy being — at how well-colonised we have become by the Niceness Imperative of the global mainstream media. Apparently, a cake resembling a ‘stereotypical tribal African woman’ — a claim since disputed by the its artist, who says the face on the cake represented his own — was cut and eaten by a mixed racial group of patrons at an art exhibition in Sweden, in some cases with visible amusement and delight. This has outraged, but outraged!, feminists, people of colour, and one assumes, generous-souled progressive white folks. (‘People of colour’ does not include white people, because white is not that sort of a colour).

And, the artist had screamed in pain every time someone helped themselves to a slice. How perfectly morbid. How very wrong. White people merrily chopping off bits of a screeching black woman and gobbling it. How filthily racist. And misogynistic. Dis. Gusting.

Indeed.

Of course, with a little historical perspective and a little less of the sanctimonious hair-trigger offence mechanism so deeply valorised by our media, lawmakers and the easy-activism industry, one might have interpreted the edible installation thus: “My! What a brutally honest depiction of the history of savagery — physical, legal, economic and social — that black African women have had to face, since the inception of colonialism, at the very least”. One might even have thought, “What an excellent depiction of the brutality minority women — on the lowest rung of the social hierarchy and with the least political voice or cultural capital in every society — have to face every day of their lives”. Indeed, one might have expected this angle to jump at self-consciously coloured people the moment they set eyes on the installation, which, in my reading of it at least, seeks to highlight the voiceless suffering of certain groups of African women by mimicking the practice of female circumcision, and social complicity in it.

At the very least, one might have expected feminists, people of colour and rights activists to go “Hmmm” at the cake for a bit, and not exposed the fulness of their intellectual slavery to the elite-protective biases of the media quite so eagerly.

But this, evidently, would be too much effort, particularly since it would go against the happy indoctrination by the social hegemony of a section of Western-sourced activism, to only be radical in familiar, media-friendly ways (“I will walk without my shirt on for women empowerment everywhere!”). And we can’t be having that. Plus being rational and balanced is always a risk — it’s like holding an open house for the PC Police. Especially if it involves race. Goodness gracious me, we’re actually talking about race? We’re acknowleding it exists? And gender! Still nattering about it? Using graphic depictions which might make former and current perps of almost unbelievable physical atrocities on (minority) women uncomfortable? Inflicting the reality of institutionalised brutality and violence on those women who will never have to encounter anything this tangibly painful? Clearly, good manners and considerations for other people’s sensibilities are a thing of the past.

So predictably, wits worldwide have dubbed this art event cakegate, and Twitter — and all other activist platforms for those prettily plumped armchair bottoms — is roiling in shame, horror, outrage, and the like. The knee-jerk “OMG evil shameful horrible how beastly!” routine, which makes us feel so good about ourselves and boosts our progressive image, have mushroom all over. Because thinking is hard. We all know this. Even when it would save our skins and protect our interests. We’d much rather join the untouched global elite in acknowledging there are “minorities” who are “marginalised” and who need the “aid industry”, to which we will dedicate our careers, or our post-career philanthropic endeavours. But we must never remember these particular particulars, the bloody histories, the actual, tangible socially-approved knifing and cutting and beatings and molestations that continue unabated. Because, eww, morbid much? And it’s putting me off my food. Plus the media won’t cover us if we’re not suitable viewing for the family, and besides, real, well-thought out, contextualised analysis takes up lots of air-time. And it’s like, soooo boring.

Let us just stick to being appalled, aggrived, and ineffectually socially active. Those reactions to race and gender violence, the world understands. There. Isn’t it nice and comfy to be back on familiar territory?

PS: This is a multi-purpose time-saving article. Please make contextually relevant substitutions — with, for example, caste in India — to suit the occasion at hand.

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21 comments

  1. I’m not sure how I feel about it. But it definitely is interesting to me. The outrage, I dont get.

  2. oi, outraged hoye gele toh aar bhebe dekhte hoyna. aar didi, ki je bolen, bhabar moton taim kaar achhe ajker byasto juge?

  3. In a similar vein, I’ve been reading about how TOMS shoes, a company that skyrocketed among American hipsters and social activists alike, is actually destroying local economies and (possibly) spreading evangelical Christianity to impoverished nations in the name of “aid.” Yet, precious few seem to be drawing the connection between that cake and TOMS. Hrm.

  4. Fighting words. Just about right to call out the privileged well ensconced hypocrisy who need to critique the neocolonial policies of their governments first and then worry about such. No amount of righteous posturing is going to obviate the structural underpinnings of the sudanese crises where precious little was done by the usa to stop the militia of Bashir from ravaging women in the south. Keep your white saviour industrial complex, as Teju Cole put it, but sort out the issues at home first.

    • More dangerous, as I was trying to point out, is the co-option of “people like us” into this see-no-uncomfortable-evil-and-shame-those-that-do paradigm. When foot soldiers go over to the other camp, the fight for better shoes is over.

  5. I suppose the people who were offended by this did not think it through but reacted to a series of images that are unusual, unexpected, uncomfortable. Your reading of this piece of performance art seems quite an obvious reading to me, I watched the video before I read this and I thought the same things that you did but from what you say, lots of other people seem to have missed the point. Masses of people generally do miss the point and that’s their problem, their lack of thought. Anomitra, many people don’t think that outrage/ dislike are things they need to think about self-reflexively, ie, “why does it outrage me? what does that say about me?” etc. That we do (and I still can’t do it instinctively but have to remind myself to do it) is a product of our academic training. I at least have been TAUGHT to do this, this is not a process of thinking and evaluation that I came upon by myself.

    • Yes, I know that; it’s just that if this is an exhibit at an art show, you’d hope some people would think beyond their horror at a black woman being mistreated and wonder whether it might relate to anything beyond the art qua art.

      Not sure I’m making sense.

  6. Similarly, Nundy, that you and I read certain things into this that are more correct than what other people may have read into it (in the sense that we are maybe grasping with more accuracy what the artist thought herself) is also because of things we have read or seen or been taught in class. Jara hoichoi korche ora hoyto jane na, ki ar kora jabe? Such is the internet, everybody is free to air their opinions, however uninformed they may be.

  7. Its not an exhibit, its a performance piece. I’m sure some, if not many, people at the venue thought beyond their initial horror (and may I add, the immediate shock and horror of this comes from the cannibalism bit of it and not so much the race bit) and reached conclusions similar to ours. Maybe they didn’t tweet about it, so sad.

  8. This reminds me of another artist, I can’t remember her name, who shut herself in a cage and pierced her body with large hooks, that too was a performance art piece, people wrote about it, we read those, we dissected it in class but the initial response to the images it was invariably outrage; who put her in the cage? who pierced her with hooks? so cruel!

  9. No, Srin, I quite disagree. I’m glad you’re trying to be nice and accommodating and democratic — and shame on us probably that we are incapable of this — but this unquestioning accommodation of every point of view as equally valid is one reason why our current ideas about democracy is self-destructive and prone to exploitation.

    To repeat what I’ve said above in clearer and more direct terms, that we (are encouraged to) reduce a critique of how global power today got where it is in much safer, familiar and unnuanced terms of “OMG RACISM!”, and thereby villifying a potentially politically troublesome artist is a perfect example of our intellectual and emotional colonialism. Had the minority of the global power elite been Pavlov, we’d be excellently trained dogs, ignoring our ‘natural’ instincts and drooling only at stimuli we’ve been trained to react to. To let this massive, self-defeating brainwashing pass unscathed would be, as the saying goes, like chopping off the branch we’re sitting on.

      • That is certainly not how it came across. In fact, before you added that rider, this is what I wrote, the second part of which is still valid: I wish I could say I’m surprised you bring up the cliche about the internet being a free-for-all, where everybody is free to air their opinion. But I am not. It is, in fact, an excellent demonstration of the stock-reactions we’ve been trained to dish out when a cluster of familiar words present themselves. You read my critique of Twitter activism, and your brain supplies the part where I insist they have no right to air their ‘moronic’ views — which is usually a part of the YouTube/Twitter war narrative, but which I am, sadly, too democratic to espouse. I hope this slip bothers you enough to re-evaluate the “respect” you have for everyone’s freedom of speech, and consider instead how free ‘free speech’ is, given the deeply insiduous media environment we live in.

        A final clarification. You say we think like we do because we have training. That our cohorts and classmates belong to the horrified brigade should give us pause at this stage, but let us move forward with the assumption you are right. Are you perchance suggesting we are being intellectual snobs, judgeing the poor, involuntarily untrained masses? Or are you more sensible pointing out that public education systems have been so carefully dismantled over the decades that our citizens have been reduced to being capable only of a volatile, uninformed ‘offence’, and making political decisions based on such reactions?

  10. Have you considered the entire episode in the light of ritual cannibalism (blood of Christ, body of Christ as in Catholics) absolving the eater, of past sins? In this case a cake of a black woman.

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