Thursday, April 19, 2012

Two pieces of cake

So this blackface cake controversy. When I heard, via the always aware @sa_poptart (aka Charl Blignault) on Twitter that the initial pic of the Swedish culture minster Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth cutting the cake was part of an installation art performance, my opinion of it changed. 

When I first saw the image, I desperately wanted to know the back story, the context. The very flagrance of it, the fact that all the viewers were so blatantly enjoying themselves, without a hint of guilt, implied there was more to it. Surely nobody could be so racist without any sign of hate, or at the very least guilt?

Blackface is code for the most blatant stereotyping of black people. Casting them as black-faced, fat-lipped minstrels, good only for the entertainment of the master. Black people are hereby reduced to charicatures, their generalised talents and attributes put on display for the enjoyment and physical inspection of the white man.

Blackface minstrel shows were the early, clumsy and insensitive attempts by white artists to appropriate African-American culture. They were also a racist form of poking fun and snearing at a culture they felt severely threatened by. In fact the Jim Crow Laws, the American version of apartheid laws, were named after an early blackface minstrel song, Jump Jim Crow, from 1828.

So blackface is instrumental in the dehumanising of Africans and reducing them to stereotypes. As a white person I can only blindly grasp at the true meaning of this, but I do feel a sense of outrage and sadness when I see such images.

The artist responsible for the blackface cake installation, African-Swede Makode Linde, now says the point of the installation was to draw attention to a simliar stereotyping of women's oppression as African-based female circumcision, whereas in fact female oppression takes several forms and is present worldwide. He is making a comment against the simplifying of the racist problem, at a time when racism is practised in far more subtle ways.

His comments in his own words are one way to try to gain an understanding of his aims, but as a work of art, I believe it should stand alone, and its impact should be derived from the viewer's experience of it. For me commentary, even artists's second-language commentary, is superfluous. Even if the message might be confusing, mysterious, debatable or controversial, the fact that a piece induces people to think and invites discussion shows it has succeeded.

That that discussion has gone global illustrates the success of the artwork. Of course, in this dissemination of the piece, it is every time taken further out of its context. Everyone spreading the stills or video of the piece feels compelled to add editorialise about it – as indeed I have. Unfortunately, since it is performance art, we can never completely experience the piece exactly as it was delivered, in its original context. It's a bit like trying to review of a play or a hip-hop show based on some stills and a cellphone video taken by someone in the audience.

The controversy says as much about social media as it does about art media. We are really talking about two pieces. One a provocative, live-art performance piece to mark the 75th World Art Day at Sweden's Moderna Museet, the other a viral, interpretation of it, morphing and snowballing across cyberspace, taking on the attitudes of almost everyone who forwards it and becoming a focal point for all of our ideas about racism, art and the Swedish culture ministry.

As Linde points out, a lot of the responses have been shallow, amounting to "This is racist and your art is shit". Blackface was certainly racist in 1828, it was racist in 1900, and it was racist in 1978, when minstrel shows finally went out of fashion. But is it still racist today, when it is used generally satirically, and in this case by a black artist, to comment on subtle racism and the ongoing typecasting of Africans?

Your opinion on that is your own, but if you feel moved to express it, then the piece and the attendant social-media hype around it will have achieved something.

1 comment:

corinne knowles said...

Nice take on this hargs. I am currently in edinburgh doing research, and here the controversy centred around the Swedish Arts and Culture minister cutting a strategic piece, and laughing as she ate it. This (I believe) was part of the perfomance, deliciously loaded.
Personally, my responses were like yours, shifting from outrage to a narrowed eyed, "Oh. Ok.". I guess the discomfit is important - who speaks for the subaltern? who depicts her? who laughs at her? who eats her? Who pastes her on their facebook page? Interesting questions, layered exactly because of how things are necessarily taken out of context on social media. Thanks for the thoughts. xxx