It’s a disturbing image. The Swedish Minister of Culture, Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth, feeding a symbolic piece of mutilated vagina to performance artist Makode Aj Linde, and whispering: “Your life will be better after this,” in between wine and giggles. This is not so much about raising awareness about genital mutilation in Africa, as it is about questioning the way Europe patronisingly exoticises African problems. It’s a story that has the whole world scrambling for an appropriate reading, or reaction – ourselves included – as evidenced by our own poorly researched knee-jerk reaction published earlier today. To review our initial sentiments, which accused the Swedes and the artist himself of “flagrant, racist shit!”, we now reckon that this could actually be one of the finest “artistic” statements on the west’s approach to Africa. Mea culpa Mahala. If this was a print magazine we’d be in a lot more kak.
One of the earliest readings, and possibly the source of much confusion around the piece is the idea that Makode Aj Linde’s artwork is about “raising awareness of genital mutilation in Africa”. Because really, that’s the red herring. The little easy-to-soundbite distraction that allows the artist space to perform his jiu-jitsu. That of a black artist, dressed in blackface, getting the Swedish Minister of Culture to perform a mock genital mutilation, in front of a gallery crowd of nervously laughing, wine drinking art patrons. It all makes for a rather sublime artistic statement on how the west views Africa – exploding as a viral on the internet. Job done. The controversy that has erupted around the performance, and our own misreading of it, only goes to show how fraught and complex the race debate is… and most importantly, how shoddy research and a misreading of the finer details can lead to some rather large misunderstandings compounding an already murky and volatile issue.
As Nathalie Rothschild said in a Vice piece entitled Holy Shit that Cake is Racist:
“Lost in the outrage was the fact that the artist, Makode Aj Linde, makes work that explores stereotyping, attitudes towards black people, and post-colonialism. Getting a bunch of white people to cheer and laugh as a symbolic African gets mutilated probably made his point.”
The real question is, was the Swedish Minister of Culture “duped” by the artist, into playing this role and in so doing producing a potentially career ending gaffe. Or was she knowingly part of the artist’s interrogation. The answer may well lie in the statement: “your life will get better after this.”
Alas, unlike art, which thrives on the ambiguity of meaning, political careers don’t.