By Saeed Shabazz -Staff Writer-
UNITED NATIONS (FinalCall.com) – “There is nothing funny about oppression!” chanted New Black Panther Party members gathered in front of the Swedish Mission to the United Nations for a recent demonstration.
The group was protesting the actions and attitude of Swedish Minister of Culture Lena Adelsohn-Liljeroth while cutting into a red velvet cake that depicted a nude African woman, and was rigged to have the cake’s creator scream as slices were made into the edible sculpture, during a ceremony at the Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, Museum of Modern Art, last month.
“We are here today to condemn. This is art at its worst; there must be an outcry against this type of racist imagery,” declared Zayid Muhammad of the New Black Panther Party’s National Ministry of Culture, standing outside the Swedish mission. The cake was a rendition of “a ‘Sambo-ized’ African woman, with exaggerated lips teeth and eyes like the age-old racist caricaturing of African people,” said Mr. Muhammad. Afro-Swede Makode Aj Linde defended the work as “artistic choice,” saying those who criticize the cake aren’t familiar with his work.
With April 15 marking World Art Day in Sweden, and a celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Swedish Artists Organization, Mr. Linde’s cake was supposed to represent artistic freedom, the right to offend; and a condemnation of female genital mutilation.
The message was entirely lost on many those who saw photographs and an online video of the Swedish official and others enjoying the brutal spectacle. “At issue is the participation of the Swedish minister of culture, captured on videotape as in a performance; cuts the cake to represent the mutilation of the vagina of an African woman,” said the New Black Panther Party. Videos of the cake and photos can be found on YouTube.com and Facebook.com
Anger has been expressed on three continents–mainly in letters to Swedish officials–over what human rights advocate Dowoti Desir of the New York-based Durban Declaration Program of Action (DDPA) Watch Group denounced as “the abominable response” by the minister of culture in an April 17 letter to Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt. “The videotapes of Min. Liljeroth depict someone who is more of a proponent of violence and racism than that of the arts. Her blithe laughter betrays her inability to comprehend what lies behind the symbolic and psychic violence against the global African person; and violence against women,” wrote Ms. Desir.
Ms. Desir told The Final Call Blacks must use this incident to “understand how culture is used to oppress a people.”
“The artist thinks he is being cutting-edge, but I don’t think he really understands what he has done. Instead of being cool, the artist performed one of the worse minstrel shows in the last 100 years,” said Paradise Gray, a human rights advocate and a co-founder of the Pittsburgh-based OneHood organization.
New York Assemblywoman Inez Barron, a Democrat, condemned the Swedish cake in a May 2 press statement, saying “the display was neither funny nor entertaining.” Assemblywoman Barron was somewhat dismayed at the lack of response to her press release. “We have become desensitized, but we have to keep raising the consciousness level about what happened in Sweden,” she told The Final Call. Her statement came the same day as the New Black Panther Party protest.
Atlantic Monthly magazine April 20 called Makode Aj Linde a visual artist who asks uncomfortable questions about race and racial stereotyping. However, critics questioned his goal in the cake incident, as he played the part of the head of the cake, screaming each time someone cut a slice.
Omowale Clay, of the Brooklyn-based December 12th Movement, a non-governmental organization recognized by the United Nations, told The Final Call the Swedish fiasco must be seen in the larger context of the Western mindset marginalizing Africa and Africans. “You can’t separate the cultural re-colonization from the economic re-colonization of Africa. Nor can we buy into art-for-art sake,” he said.
The laughter of those present during the cake cutting ceremony reveals the true picture of how the West sees its relationships with Africa and African people, added Mr. Clay.
From Africa, anger over the racist cake was expressed in “An Open Letter From African Women to the Minister of Culture” published by Pambazuka News: “African women are dismayed at the fact that this racist project which was supposed to bring awareness of the very painful and complex issue of genital cutting has ironically had the completely opposite effect.”
The letter was signed by the Jethro Institute of Good Governance and the Black Women’s Blueprint. The Final Call contacted Norman Girvan, publisher of Pambazuka News concerning the letter, which he said was credible. He only would say that the cake story raised “a very serious issue.”
Some observers in Sweden say racism and racist depictions of Black people are common in the country–such as students showing up to a dinner at a top-rate university in black-face, nooses and shackles around their necks and led by a White slave trader, followed by a skit reenacting a slave auction. The person that blew the whistle on the dinner incident in the school’s newspaper was publicly threatened along with his family. The Local, an English language publication in Sweden, reported May 4 that civil rights leader Jesse Jackson sent a letter condemning the student behavior to the Swedish Ministry of Education.
There were also the October 2010 shootings of at least 20 people of color by a lone White man in the Swedish city of Malmo. At least one person died. The man was said to have a psychological condition, and charges have yet to be filed in the incident.
In a 2007 Rijo Research report “Institutional Racism in Sweden and Europe,” analysts found “Sweden and much of Europe have not come much further than the U.S. of the 1960s” and denial in Sweden allows “institutional racism” to continue in regard to ethnicity and religion.
The report concludes “institutional racism can be found in Sweden’s labor market, housing, politics, the legal system, education and the welfare system.” Rijo Research is a German-based independent and non-commercial think tank that deals with topics that do not make it into mainstream media.
Sweden is the third largest nation in the European Union in terms of land, with a total population of 9.4 million, according to the International Monetary Fund. Eighty-five percent of the population lives in urban areas. Atlantic Monthly reports Finns are the largest minority at five percent. Ethiopians and Somalis largely make up the Afro-Swede population at one-third of one percent of the population.
Kitimbwa Sabuni of the National Association for Afro Swedes, in a statement, said the cake incident “simply adds to the mockery of racism in Sweden” while calling for the minister of culture to resign. Ms. Desir and New York state Assemblywoman Barron joined in calls for the official to step down.
Ms. Liljeroth continues to deny she is racist, insisting she did nothing wrong, according to media reports. She has admitted in print that perhaps the cake was provocative and bizarre. A representative of the Swedish delegation to the United Nations told The Final Call there would be no comment from the ambassador. The Swedish Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to a Final Call request for comment.
Ms. Desir said the Swedish cake incident proves the importance of the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent in its quest to create an African Group Permanent Mission in Geneva, Switzerland and for creation of a Decade for People of African Descent, 2013 to 2023. One of the central themes is moving away from victimhood while moving toward self-empowerment through knowledge and understanding the real problem is not racial discrimination, it is African genocide worldwide, she said.
“Sweden is unabsolved from the unethical profits gained through both the export taxes on slaves, as well as, the sale of iron chains used to constrain them from 1638 to 1813,” added Ms. Desir in her letter to the Swedish prime minister.