Bad Taste in the Mouth
The 'Black Body Cake' Video Controversy
It was almost exactly ten years ago that Saartjie Baartman’s remains were finally returned to her homeland of South Africa after years of being on display and later stored at the Musee de l’Homme in France. The peace that Baartman so rightfully deserves continues to be disrupted by the legacy of the ‘Venus Hottentot," which continues to dominate representations of the black female body. Two hundred years later, and women of African descent are still being assessed through our bodies and used to benefit others. From Nicki Minaj to Renee Cox , Baartman’s life continues to haunt and empower artists and scholars alike, so much so that even the mention of her name incites discomfort and indignation.
In her series entitled ‘The Baartman Diaries,’ artist Fo Wilson re-imagines Baartman’s experiences in Europe as a way to bring attention to her loss of agency and the callousness of her exhibition. Understandably, not every artist can be successful in negating stereotypes. Swedish artist Makode Linde, in his controversial performance art piece, opened old wounds regarding race and gender within visual culture. Does his work challenge modern-day notions of black femininity and the spectacle through his engagement, or is he merely using shock tactics to gain public attention?
In Spring 2012, a video of people cutting into and eating a cake went viral on the Internet. The cake is blood-red on the inside and covered with black icing. Two things make this performance art event controversial. The cake is made into the shape of a black female body. It is a stereotypical shape with large hips and breasts. Furthermore, white audience participants take turns with a knife to cut their slice from the cake's "pelvic region."
The artist, under the table and visible from the neck up in blackface as the head of the cake, screams with each thrust of the blade. The mixed-race male artist, Makode Linde, has African and Swedish parents. The performance took place April 15, 2012, at Moderna Museet Stockholm as an World Art Day event.
One possible justification of this work is that it is a representation of female genital mutilation. The work purports to bring graphic awareness of this disfiguring practice that continues in some parts of Africa. The problem is the audience members do not appear to be horrified.
George Yancy, associate professor of philosophy at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, thinks the video is offensive. "As I watched, I asked myself: why didn't someone approach the 'artwork' and say that this site of mutilation has got to stop, should not be done, that this is ethically appalling," he writes in an email communication to a colleague.
Yancy's academic work covers philosophy and the black experience, critical race theory and critical whiteness studies. He contends that not only the creator of this interactive instatallation/performance is culpable, but that the people in the audience who ate the cake share blame as well.
They were re-inscribing violence here. They positioned themselves as spectators of the degraded black female body. They are not only performing a racialized vivisection, but they are also deriving a form of perverse pleasure from eating the black body, which amounts to another level of erasing the black body, indicative of mutilating the black body. After all, look at the laughter. This is perverse!! They have not only placed her body under erasure at the level of cutting into it, like Georges Cuvier, but they are ingesting her body, which becomes another form of erasure. They are obliterating her uniqueness by making her 'flesh of their flesh,' by making her into the same of their white constructions; the black woman's alterity, in essence, was denied.
There were alternative ways participants in the audience could have responded, Yancy points out.
Why didn't anyone simply caress the head of the screaming artwork -- the Black woman? To what extent are the whites adding to the art performance, in its grotesquery? Are they innocent bystanders? I think not. They are participating; re-inscribing the white gaze and re-inscribing the site of violence. Yet, it was an interactive performative piece, yes? But there are/were so many ways of interacting within that context. What was needed was a counter-performance, a counter-white gaze. All of those whites there were guilty of having been seduced by the mutilation, the spectacle; it was a site of white bonding and racialized cannibalism. While cakes are to be eaten, the message surrounding the artwork did not trigger the sort of response that should have been one of outcry, outrage. Keep in mind, after all, that the artwork is screaming -- perhaps screaming for a different response from us, a different approach to that site of suffering. Perhaps at the end of the day, we don't really know how to respond to screaming Black bodies, screaming vulnerable bodies, bodies in need, more genarally. This speaks to our humanity or lack thereof.
Fo Wilson adds, "It's sad and 'perverse', as George alludes, that none of the participants thought to do anything other than cut and eat the cake! Sadly, this speaks to how institutionalized racism and sexism is in our global consciousness. We 'eat' these perversions blindly without stopping to question what it is we are actually consuming and why."
So does Linde's live performance art and its video incarnation on the Web achieve something by shocking viewers to consider women's issues and racial stereotypes? Does it start the conversation?
Other comentary about Linde's controversial cake:
The Atlantic, "The Brilliance of Sweden's Shocking Golliwog Cake"
The International Review of African American Art published the first, in-depth examination of contemporary African American artists who stereotypically or grotesquely caricature the black figure. The articles, “The Past is Prologue but is Parody and Pastiche Progress?” by art historians Michael Harris and Lowery Sims and Karen C.C. Dalton, editor of the Image of the Black in Western Art Research Project; and “Stereotypes Subverted? Or For Sale” by Juliette Harris are in this 1997 issue of the International Review of African American Art.