The Brilliance of Sweden's Shocking Golliwog Cake

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.

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

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