The Brilliance of Sweden's Shocking Golliwog Cake

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When artist Makode Linde dressed up as a pastry depicting a caricatured African woman, he was doing more than just embarrassing Sweden's cultural minister.

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Linde howls in mock pain as Swedish art fans eat from a cake made to look like a female African woman. YouTube

You are supposed to be shocked by the photos of the cake, baked in the shape of a contorted, female, black body. You are meant to be appalled by the laughing crowd of white Swedes, egging on Swedish Minister of Culture Lena Adelsohn-Liljeroth as she cuts a slice from the cake's crotch. And you are absolutely meant to be horrified by the living human face, painted in Golliwogg blackface style, looking back at the chuckling crowd, and screaming in mock pain as the cake is cut. (The face belongs to male artist Makode Linde, who designed the cake.) The scene is disturbing, awkward, repulsive, even painful, and that's precisely the point. If you see that, then you're in on it. All of the people in these now-infamous photos -- excluding the face-painted artist underneath the cake -- are not.

There are two layers to the story. The first is the story of what Minister Adelsohn-Liljeroth and these other ministry officials thought they were walking into. The second is the story of what they were actually walking into.

Adelsohn-Liljeroth believed she was participating in an art installation meant to draw attention to the plight of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Africa. This is why participants were told to cut slices from the cake's bottom, an act symbolic of FGM, which Adelsohn-Liljeroth has worked to campaign against and which is a deeply popular cause in Sweden. The occasion was the 75th birthday of the Swedish Artists Organization, held at Stockholm's Moderna Museet. Artist Makode Linde had been asked to produce a creative cake to celebrate, and he explained this cake would draw attention to the Swedish Culture Ministry's work against FGM.

What the culture minister and her coterie did not realize was that they were all unwilling participants in Linde's culinary art installation, and that the cake-as-art was more about race than it was about female genital mutilation. Their participation, their awkward laughter at seeing the caricatured racial features of the cake, even the photos of Adelsohn-Liljeroth slicing away, were all the point. One Swedish artist called it a "mousetrap."

The cake acts as a metaphor for Sweden's obsession with African female genital mutilation.

Sweden cares a lot about female genital mutilation, a traditional practice in parts of Africa of forcibly mutilating a pubescent girl's genitals. Swedish NGOs lead national campaigns against FGM. The health ministry commissions formal studies on it. The Swedish legislature officially banned the practice in 1982, when it was first starting to receive widespread Western attention, and expended the law in 1998 and in 1999. In the 30 years since the law was passed, according to a study by a Spanish university, only two cases have been brought.

It turns out that there are just not very many Africans in Sweden, who might have brought FGM traditions with them. The country's largest minority is Finns, who make up only 5 percent of the population. There are a few tiny pockets of Ethiopian and Somali immigrants, the latter of whom make up about one third of one percent of the population. Sweden is not especially involved in Africa; unlike other European countries, it does not have the old colonial ties that might give it special access. And this is part of what makes the Swedish campaign against FGM a little unusual, and why Afro-Swedish artist Makode Linde staged his bizarre and shocking display.

There is a long-running and thorny debate among Western activists and anthropologists who work in Africa about their role in curbing FGM, which is both violently sexist and culturally traditional. Some say that it's not Westerners' place to dictate morality to African societies that see this is a rite of passage; others argue that FGM is so harmful and sexist that it merits intervention. Swedish society seems to have landed pretty hard on the latter end of that conversation, which is of course not bad in itself -- how could preventing girls from suffering mutilation be bad? -- but their campaign looks a little strange because they seem to believe so strongly in an issue that they're not actually in a position to do much about. Swedish society has very few interactions with African societies. The conversation within Sweden about African FGM can sometimes feel like it's more for the benefit of Swedes than it is for actual Africans.

This seems to be the dynamic Linde is suggesting with his carefully staged cake-cutting moment. A high-profile, high-ranking Swedish official is participating in something blatantly racist (though, in her defense, she was in an impossible situation; just walking away would have looked even worse, and she's actually got a long record of campaigning against racism) with a smile on her face. The African in the room is a caricature, an outdated Western golliwog distortion that looks nothing like actual Africans. The blackface, the tiny limbs, the face paint that exists only in Western portrayals -- it's a symbol of the Western imagining of helpless, agency-less, child-like Africans.

The white-faced Swedes in the room are participating (though, again, not totally of their own will) in perpetuating a reductive and condescending image of the same Africans they are purporting to help. It's a sort of metaphor for the larger Swedish anti-FGM campaign, which Linde and other skeptics might see as doing more to reinforce outdated and patronizing views of Africans than in actually helping them.

Swedish writer Johan Palme explained Linde's artistic philosophy, and why this winking stunt is exactly the kind of thing he'd pull off, in a post at the always-great Africa Is A Country:

Who's Makode Linde, who staged the whole event? He is a visual artist, and as such has continuously asked uncomfortable questions about race, racial stereotyping and his own position as a black man in a condescending elite art world. The golliwog figure is a consistent image in his artwork, being placed on everyday objects, on paintings grinning nervously at the king, gawking in horror from children's faces, at times undergoing almost formalist destruction. But just as importantly: he's a club promoter and a DJ, one of Sweden's most successful, who knows exactly how to manipulate crowds and their emotions.

There's no doubt that Adelsohn-Liljeroth and the many Swedes involved in campaigning against FGM seem to be kind-hearted, noble-minded people who oppose racism and would like to help the victims of female genital mutilation. Linde, even if he has corralled them all into a disastrous photo op that could even cost Adelsohn-Liljeroth her job (it shouldn't), probably doesn't mean to embarrass them personally so much as draw attention to the subtle racial politics of Sweden's popular conceptions of FGM and Africans generally. That's not an easy thing to explain to people in words, but a screaming cake seems to have done it.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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