An Open Letter from African women to the Minister of Culture: The Venus Hottentot Cake, by blackfeminist.org
April 21, 2012. We the undersigned women of African /African descent and our supporters, which include anti-racist activists, scholars community leaders and Faith leaders wish to address the Swedish Venus Hottentot Cake Incident. First, we commend our Swedish friends and colleagues, and those from the African-Swedish Diaspora for their substantial contribution to anti-racist mobilization and education through their various Policy Institutes and Research Programs, which have worked diligently to promote the interests of African Diaspora communities in Europe and Internationally.
The Issue At Hand
“Contemporary forms of oppression do not routinely force people to submit. Instead, they manufacture consent for domination so that we lose our ability to question and thus collude in our own subordination.”
-Patricia Hill-Collins, Black Feminist Scholar.
On Sunday, April 15th, at the Moderna Museet the Swedish Artists Organisation celebrated World Art Day, as well as celebrating its own 75th birthday. Lena Adelsohn-Liljeroth, the culture Minister, was Invited to speak and a number of artists were invited to create birthday cakes for the celebration. The Minister was informed that the cake would be about the limits of provocative art, and about female genital mutilation. The event was launched with Lena Adelsohn-Liljeroth cutting the first piece of cake from a dark, ruby red velvet filling with black icing, which we understand was created by the Afro-Swedish artist Makode Aj Linde, whose head forms that of the black woman, and is seen with a blackened face screaming with pain each time a guest cuts a slice from the cake. Rather disturbingly for many African women, the minister is pictured laughing as she cuts off the genital area (clitoris) from the metaphorical cake, as the artist Makode screams distastefully.
The gaze of the predominantly white Swedish crowd is on Lijeroth who is positioned at the crotch end, as they look on at their visibly ebullient culture minister with seemingly nervous laughter as she becomes a part of the performance – a re-enactment of FGM on a cake made in the image of a disembodied African woman.
The pictures of the event that followed in the media and video footage can only be described in the mildest of terms, as a very negative racialised spectacle, that has infuriated many people. As representatives of African women on the ground, we have the experiential privilege to convey to the Swedish Embassy’s Ministry of Culture the fury that we have seen, particularly from African women who are dismayed at the fact that this project which was supposed to bring awareness of the very painful and complex issue of genital cutting has ironically, had the complete opposite effect.The fact that the artist is black does not in any way diminish the gravity of this racially demeaning project. The black artist who created this may be accused of being a dim witted misogynist on the one hand or on the other, some sort of gnostic proponent of postmodern praxis, in relation to black identity and difference – that we just don’t get – but we do not believe, based on what we have seen and heard from the artists own explanations, that this so-called ‘provocative performance art’ stands up to the intellectual rigor required of literary and cultural critique.The work is definitely not empowering or transformative for women who are victims of FGM in any shape or form, and the racial overtones of this project re-inscribe the exploitation and dehumanisation of black African women, which clearly cannot be denied. The fact of Makode Linde’s blackness does not legitimize anything done here, and the message about the seriousness of FGM is completely subsumed by the hideous medium through which it has been conveyed.
One does not need to be subjected to the epistemic violence underpinning the grotesque reconstruction of FGM, in the form of a black woman having her clitoris cut off to the sound of a laughing crowd with a fixed gaze, drinks in hand, to raise awareness of this very serious issue. Perhaps some reflection is required on what this might be saying about the people who were participating, and who saw nothing wrong in what will surely go down as a deeply disturbing episode and blight in Sweden’s history.
As the representatives of African women it is with grave concern that we express our extreme and utter dismay that the minister for culture, Lena Adelsohn-Liljeroth – someone who holds a position of great authority and power – would take part in what basically amounted to a humiliating and dehumanising racialised public spectacle of African women. We believe the naive re-enactment of this oppression and symbolic violence in the name of “raising awareness” shows a profound disconnection between the minister for culture and the women who have to deal with FGM. Unfortunately, this serves to reinforce the huge chasm that exists between the cultural sensibilities of African women and western women [albeit not always exclusively between these two categories, when the dynamics of difference is taken into further consideration]. We do not in any shape or form subscribe to this sham, that is so widely described to as “women’s empowerment.”
In this sense we the undersigned believe that this project is no different from the” Hottentot Venus” Sara Baartman and other African women who were exhibited as freak show attractions in Europe in the 19th Century.Sara Baartman was tricked into going to Europe, where she and other African women were paraded naked in museums and public squares and gawked at by all and sundry, for their “huge buttocks and peculiar genitalia”. The objectification of African women’s bodies by the west is rife in the pornography industry and there at least one can argue that the women who participate do so willingly. However, when this happens in the context of a serious issue such as FGM and it is done in the name of “art”, we believe that there is a need for a strong unequivocal response to challenge such derogatory and racist representations promulgated by so-called “provocative art”.
As such We/African Women/African-Americans and many women of the African Diaspora the world over view this as an assault on our foremothers, sisters and our selves who have worked tirelesslly in different historical and cultural contexts to rid society of the sexist/racist vernacular and stereotypes of black women as sluts, jezebel, hottentot, mammy, mule, sapphire; to build our own sense of selves and redefine what women who look like us represent.
In this sense we completely reject the grotesque caricature of the black African woman constructed by the artist Mokode Linde to re-enact FGM, which displayed no discernible cultural sensitivity towards those African girls/women and girls/women generally who are subjected to that experience. We in no way except this as a valid representation of the experiences of African women, but rather, we view it as a racialised slur and an attempt at erasure of all that we have struggled for historically in order to genuinely empower African women the world over. We can learn from successful movements like the Civil Rights movement, from Women’s Suffrage, the Black Nationalist and Black Feminist movements that we can make change without resorting to the sort of connivance outlined here between white female power and the black male power that legitimized this gross act of cultural insensitivity and public humiliation towards African women in the form of what is now infamously known as the Venus Hottentot Cake.
The Artist and Ethics
Internalized racism has been one of the primary means by which we are constantly forced to perpetuate and collude in our own oppression and the oppression of others of our race. In the case of the “Venus Hottentot Cake”, equally devastating is that the artist Makode Aj Linde is Afro-Swedish. His own head adorned with long locks forms that of the naked Black woman in the cake, lying motionless on a table in a room surrounded by a laughing crowd. Not one Black woman, not one Black person in the room, except the artist and his cake. Makode Aj Linde is seen with a blackened face screaming with pain each time a Swedish guest cuts a slice from the cake. We are horrified as we try to make sense of this artist’s actions and we are perplexed by his explanation of the art as an awareness raising piece on the “practice of female genital mutilation” in certain African communities, or a practice that many African women’s rights defenders have come to rename female genital cutting (FGC).
The moment that cake was presented; the moment that cake was eaten; the moment that cake caused joy and excitement, re-opening the marvel that white Europeans felt at exploiting African women’s bodies—specifically, the sexualized celebration, the entrapment, the cutting of the genitalia of the Sara Baartman-like black body, the ethics of the artist comes into serious question, even if not the art itself, for the sake of “art”, for the sake of non-censorship. Racism was propped up in its ugliest form, facilitated by a Black artist and perpetuated on the representation of the body of a Black female.
No one, including the artist seems to have consulted Black African women at the forefront of the movement to end the practice of female genital cutting, often with little resources and in direct and dangerous conflict with their own communities. We echo Shailja Patel in stating: “What makes the cake episode so deeply offensive is the appropriation, by both artist and his audience, of African women’s bodies and experiences, while completely excluding real African women from the discourse. It is a pornography of violence.”
We disagree with the artist, that the various statements, comments, letters, and responses flooding the blogosphere represent “a shallow analysis of the work”, of his art. As he expresses that it is “sad if people feel offended”, we too are saddened by his lack of analysis and his acquiesce to racist and misogynist systems that not only serve to undermine the humanity of Black women, but also of Black men.
Ethics are defined as “a system of moral principles” which constantly factor into the choices we make, whether as artists or responsible governmental and/or institutional representatives. However, these decisions can become confused, making this system of principles seriously muddled and producing a blurry set of ethical guidelines, especially when competing priorities are at work—money and recognition vs. dignity and humanity. It is our personal opinion that this cake represents both ethical and moral violations not only in its presentation within the context of art, but within the department of cultural affairs sponsorship of it, regardless of country.
To the artist, by colluding in this or any level of oppression, and by providing the tool for the racialized, sexualized enjoyment of the visual body of a Black woman, by participating in the enticement of others to cut out and eat her cake vagina, which in the case of Sarah Baartman was first felt up, groped at, raped, looked at as a sexual enigma—is indeed an outrage.
Controversies and arguments abound as ethical decisions, or the lack thereof, play a role in institutional practice, in governmental practice—then you add the artist, as in this case, and you have a dangerous situation and a perpetuation on a global scale, another assault on Black women’s bodies. With the advent of technology today, our world is global. Technology allows us to see beyond our backyards. The world is watching as we still see layers of the objectification of black and indigenous peoples throughout the world, where institutions of cultural education reach their market by presenting dangerous ideologies of culture that objectify and exploit and dehumanize ethnic groups, such as Dr Kananazawa for his “Black Women Are Less Attractive” research. We are also fortunate, in the sense that we can use this same technology to respond and resist.
The fact that anthropologists, scientist, and other social scientist, educators and now this artist and the Swedish institution is being challenged around the world in outrage signals that, even through art, people want to be educated without harm, without violation, and without limitation.
What We Ask
We would welcome a meeting with the minister of culture, Lena Adelsohn-Liljeroth to discuss the implications of the event in its global reach for African women and the moral outrage it has caused. We would welcome the opportunity to engage in critical conversation with the artist Mokode Linde about the strategies he intends to employ for remaining accountable to black African communities in Sweden and further afield, he has indicated he will continue to represent in his art. We would welcome a conversation about the work ahead in relation to reconciliation for those who have been affected and/or offended by the insensitive nature of the Venus Hottentot Cake event, particularly those who have experience of FGM.
Finally, we the undersigned would welcome a sincere public apology that would demonstrate the issues we have outlined in this letter have undergone serious consideration by the minister of culture, followed up by a robust review and impllementation of anti-racist policies that impact the lives of African Swedes and those from African Diaspora communities in Europe and Internationally.It behooves each artist, or researcher, or activist, or educator, to be aware of their position and their privilege and power when communicating or producing what can then interpreted as some form of “reality” by those the product reaches.
Conversely, it is the ethical job of the institution, in this case the department of cultural affairs in Sweden to use their monies to fund programming that educates without racism and exploitation. In addition, we believe it is also imperative that they work to redact and develop programs of reeducation to counter information promulgated throughout years and centuries, via exhibitions, world fairs, zoos, parks, and more, that have framed Black women continuously, as “lesser,” “inhumane,” “sexual creatures.”
When the department of cultural affairs ate and laughed at the caricature body of Sara Baartman, the head of the department showed herself incompetent and incapable of morally and ethically making choices and incapable of running the department of cultural affairs in Sweden.
Dr Claudette Carr Director, Jethro Institute for Good Governance, BlackWomens Blueprint Barbara Mhangami, Samantha Asumadu
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