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April 18, 2012

The Artist Behind the Blackface Cake is Black, Defends It

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Written by: Kelly Virella
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he Swedish artist who made the blackface cake that has caused an international firestorm is himself a black man and says he created the cake to critique Western ideas of blackness. In a video interview with Al Jazeera, Makode Linde also said Sweden’s Minister of Culture, whose laughter at the cake angered many, had nothing to do with his decision to present it. “She wasn’t aware of how the cakes would look,” Linde said. “And when she saw the cake and found out that it was partly alive, she got quite surprised.”

Linde was invited with other artists to create a cake for the 75th anniversary of the Swedish picture artists professional organization, KRO. The celebration coincided with World Art Day and was held at Stockholm’s Modern Museum. Linde chose to present a cake that would fit into his ongoing art series Afromantics, a series in which he uses black face.

“I’ve been working since 2004 with the image of blackness and criticizing different ideas of black identity within my art,” Linde told Al Jazeera. I’ve been doing this by revamping the blackface into different forms and thereby critiquing it.”

The cake represents a woman receiving female circumcision. Linde says he created it to critique the Western tendency to point fingers at oppression in Africa, without examining its own racism, sexism and homophobia. “Racism, oppression against woman, or homophobia can take place in Africa, in Europe, in Sweden, in anywhere,” Linde says. “By then labeling oppression to only be female circumcision or taking a certain form, I think that’s putting on blindfolds for seeing what oppression really is.”

Afroswedes, a civil rights organization promoting equal rights for Swedes of African descent, has denounced the cake and called for the resignation of the minister of culture, Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth. “According to the Modern Museum the ‘cake party’ was meant to raise problems regarding female circumcision. But how that could be done with a cake representing a racist caricture of a black woman in ‘blackface’ is unclear,” says Afroswedes spokesperson Kitimba Sabuni and continues: “A museum can obviously do what is allowed within the law, but for Sweden’s highest responsible politician for culture, we can demand more.  To participate in a racist manifestation masked as art is to clearly exceed limits and can only be interpreted as backing the Modern Museum’s venture, or that she has extremely poor understanding of questions regarding racism. Regardless, the Afroswedes no longer have confidence in her as culture minister and demand that she takes responsibility and resigns.”

Linde told Al Jazeeera those who are angry and at him and the minister took the work out of its context and misunderstood his agenda as an artist. “I think a lot of people saw some images taken during the performance, saw the pictures online and took the images out of its context. And they accused me and the cultural minister to be racists,” he said. “So I think the people who have been upset about the art piece, about the images, have seen have misunderstood the intention or the agenda of me as an artist.”

Liljeroth is known as a staunch anti-racist, who changed press subsidy laws to block funding for a nationalist newspaper. She said she didn’t understand the message behind the cake until Linde explained it. But she defended him and said she won’t accede to the Afroswede demand that she step down. “I understand that they are upset. I don’t know if they had any representative in place.  If only a picture goes around it creates very strong reactions, my job is to defend freedom of the art.”

Also defending Linde is KRO, which commissioned Linde’s work. KRO’s president Karin Willen released a statement saying: “Those who have followed Makode Linde’s artistic career know that he starts from racism, xenephobia and slavery.  In the work Afromantics, of which the cake art work builds upon and continues, Makode  places contemporary western ideas of the African paradise, its safety and The Wonderful Life in contrast to historical reality: a reality that deals in slavery, apartheid, and oppression.”

Willen added: “Freedom of expression is something we always have to protect and safeguard.  In a free society we must be able to handle art that critisizes, questions and scrapes.”

Linde said in an interview on a Swedish radio station that the cake accomplished his artistic goal: “I think when people get an opportunity for  themselves to get into the work and have a discussion, then I achieve what I wanted, to have people talk about these things.”

Gunilla Starkey researched and translated  the Swedish quotes and article excerpts cited here.

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About the Author

Kelly Virella
Kelly Virella lives in an East Harlem walk-up with her husband, her bicycle and her books. She's worked as a journalist for 11 years and started this website during the summer of 2011. She fell in love with New York City during her first visit here as a 16-year-old and finally made good on her promise to move here in April 2010.


Official portrait from his tenure as US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.