Have you seen this photo of the Swedish official cutting into a cake resembling an African woman’s vagina? And, then there is another picture of the smiling Swedish Cultural Minister feeding a piece of the vagina cake into the delighted “savage” woman’s mouth. The work, called Painful Cake, is by the Afro-Swede artist Makode Linde. It was meant to draw Sweden and the world’s attention to female circumcision, also called female genital mutilation (FGM). And, it certainly did, according to Google Trends. But, the work, which has the male artist’s painted black face with ‘pickaninny’ hair and huge red lips on top of a round, dark cake depicting a caricature of an African woman, screaming out when anyone cuts into her red velvet lady parts, has been decried as offensive and not art.
The Painful Cake video went viral across Europe, Africa and the States, and offended many – especially women, black women. AllAfrica.com posted an open letter of complaint from a large group of African and African-American women to the Minister of Culture in Sweden.
Makode is known for his line of work called Afromantics, which paints blackfaces, complete with big grinnin’ red lips, white teeth and white circles around the eyes. Characteristic of whites’ portrayal of Blacks before the era of Civil Rights, blackfaces are painted on almost anything, especially icons representing idealized, white, privleged life. The artist says he’s representing himself and his own personal experience as a homosexual Afro-Swede who has always felt outside of mainstream society and ostracized. The blackfaces are effective: they can seem grotestque, shocking the viewer into questioning what is normal or ideal. Is cutting into a woman’s vagina (cake or the real deal) ideal?
Is Makode Linde’s Afromantic work any different from Kara Walker’s? Walker, an African-American female artist, is known for her black-paper silhouettes showing life in the American South before the Civil War. Often, at first glance, the pictures look peaceful and romantic, depicting the antebellum south, as those who benefitted from the social and economic structures want you to see it. But, when you look more closely, you see the true horror that was the reality. You see how the history of slavery, including sexual relations between white slave owners and black female slaves, continue to affect and haunt American psyche and society today.
In 2007, the Walker Art Center premiered Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love highlighting the artist’s signature works, examining how your oppressor could become your lover. Just like Makode Linde’s Painful Cake depicts how an African woman could accept cake from those who are cutting her. Maybe it’s easier for us to understand and appreciate Walker’s work because she is a Black woman bringing our attention to what has caused our past suffering and current challenges for a healthy and pleasurable love and sex life.
If we as women of color do not lead the discussion and create the images of our sexuality to improve our health and pleasure, others will do so for us.