What’s Wrong With This Picture? “Provocative Art” a Blatantly Racist Portrayal of Horrific Human Rights Abuse

VIDEO: Swedish Minister Cuts African Woman “Genital Mutilation Cake”

In this video, a supposed “piece of art” cake rendition of a black woman being circumcised is cut by a Swedish minister and others as the “head” wails in pain.

I am no expert in the analysis of “art.” But I know racism, class-ism, and misogyny when I see them, even though sometimes any and all of these are “hard” to see clearly because they are more usually hidden and insidious than they are overt.  

I know, understand, and support the notion that “art” must often be provocative to get across a point, to educate, illuminate, shine a light on, de-stigmatize or de-mystify an issue or person such that the provocation challenges conventional thinking.

Which is why, in my own inexpert opinion, what happened in Sweden this week was not “art.”

An event that quite literally makes fun of a tragic and devastating human rights violation affecting the health and lives of more than 140 million women and girls worldwide and de-humanizes those millions of individuals in the process is not “art.”

It is most especially not “art” if it demeans the actual people subject to those violations (countless of whom may be undergoing such violations right now, as I write this article), is not connected in any way to the feelings, analysis, or portrayals of the people whose pain it purports to represent, and, perhaps even worse, becomes the butt of a party joke by people in power.

And this is what happened this week in Stockholm, Sweden when at a World Art Day celebration guests, including the Swedish Minister of Culture, Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth, took a slice out of a cake crudely (not even a sufficient word) depicting the genital mutilation of an African woman as the head (which was the artist, a man) screamed in pain. And as the attendees laughed.

It is reminiscent, for me, of those painful scenes of the humiliation of prisoners by American soldiers in Abu Ghraib, except for the fact that it took place in Stockholm and no “actual” woman was being mutilated.

I wouldn’t bother to give space to this disgusting and vulgar scene if it weren’t for the fact that I feel we are literally beseiged by the resurgence of so many things we naively thought were “gone” or getting better… misogyny, racism, class-ism, homophobia and fear. 

In fact, racism, classism, and misogyny all are still rife within our culture and those of most countries, even the ones, like Sweden, which ironically, was once known for its funding and support internationally for advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights, including working against genital mutilation.

Blatant racism was evident in the killing of Trayvon Martin, and it is not isolated. Blatant misogyny and discrimination against women is evident in everything from the bald-faced, unapologetic displays of the kind we see daily in the United States from Wisconsin lawmakers; governors of Kansas, Nebraska, Texas and too many others; the United States House of Representatives; and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to the less overt but equally insidious acts embedded in paying women less pay for equal work or assuming adding one woman to the all-male board of a large company means “women are represented.”  Blatant class-ism is now the official governing platform of the Republican party in the United States today and conveniently, can also now be justified as a biblical command.  And blatant homophobia and fear continue to be perpetuated by “faith leaders” and government representatives alike throughout the world.

I have nothing inspired or eloquent to say, I have no words of wisdom here about this newest degradation of women.  In fact, I am speechless. 

I can only say that “artistic freedom” is not about the vulgar humiliation of the powerless, just as “religious freedom” is not about religious institutions robbing people of their rights and “economic freedom” is not found in the powerful robbing workers of their rights and ability to live decent lives.

We are going backward. I can only hope that the more we point out and hold to the light of day all of these trends, the nearer we can come to fighting against and erasing these cancers for once and for all.

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  • oak-cliff-townie

    So Who thought this was a good idea ?

    I wonder what the people in the room were  thinking when they dreamed this up ?

    Sometimes being just plain STUPID Trumps all isms that can be thought of .

    They can’t  Blame IGNORANCE or being Insensitive. They are intelligent and quite aware of the issues in front of them

    These folks are just dumber than a box of Rocks .

    And that is just Shameful.



  • cade

    There is such a thing as bad art and this is definitely it. I can gladly talk about this as art–I’m a liberal arts educated musician and writer–and there are several things wrong with this: the racism, the classism, the colonial patronizing, the misogyny. It’s also bad art. Terrible, exploitive art, in fact.

    I’ve been dwelling on this since the story broke, so I’ve had time to move beyond my horror and anger over the obvious objections. I was thinking today about this being performance art and what that means. I’m a performing artist, as a musician, but the traditional performing arts (music, dance, acting, etc.) are not the same thing as performance art. Performance art is a contemproary form and has evolved into something that is virtually inseperable from the artist her or himself. This creates a problem when the performance art is suppsedly for making a statement on societal or political issues–what is communicated ends up so intertwined with the artist that there’s little for the audience to take away from that which could be for their own reflections and contemplation. While there are certianly good performance artists, much performance art I’ve seen is really art of the ego, is overbearingly attention-seeking and often deliberately–if not patronizingly–provocative, but not necessarily communicative. Art really should be communicative–that is the essence of art–but when an art form devolves toward the point of simply communciating the artist’s need for attention, we have a serious problem, as well as a lot of bad art.

    This is what I see with this artist. He seems to be relishing this as an opportuity for attention and scandal–for people to talk about him and what he did. In the wake of this, the artist seemed far more interested to talking about having his “vagaga” mutilated or how the Minister of Culture fed him a piece of this cake than how this somehow conveys the actual agony FGM afflicts on women. I think this artist had an agenda and it had nothing to do with helping promote awareness and understanding of FGM and its impact on women.

    Another issue is how performance art itself is a marker of class and Western culture. Performance art like this doesn’t exist in many of the regions where FGM is done. They have art–plenty of it. But I don’t think many women who have undergone FGM would even know what to think of this. It might even scared them (it certainly scared me on certain levels). There are many art forms they would easily understand–music, dance, painting, sculpture, and so on. Why not go that route? Why not go with art that could speak to these women and could communicate to them a shared desire to address the issue of FGM? Why go with a performance artist whose style screams of self-obsession and self-serving the way only Western art could?

    I can’t speak for those who were in charge of planning this event, but there seems to be a profundity of disconnects going on here. What a wasted opportunity. A big challenge with outreach programs for women afflicted by FGM is their understandable distrust of people whom they see as ignorant or insensitive toward their culture and religious practices.  These women deserve far more respect and understanding than this.

  • jodi-jacobson

    For this eloquent and informative comment. Wish you had written the post!