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‘Art’ as Violence against Black Women’s Bodies

The image of a white woman laughing as she slices the genitals on a cake of a black woman’s body went viral yesterday. As the white woman (Swedish minister of culture Lena Adelsohn-Liljeroth) cuts into the cake, the head of the Black woman (Afro-Swedish man Makode Linde in blackface) screams in pain and the white people laugh.

There have been a variety of responses including:

Plus a variety of comments, from men who complain that male circumcision is just as bad [I can't even respond to this] to men who laud the “art” as “genius” for revealing the white elite at their most gruesome.

My own response was immediate: This is sexual violence against Black women. To applaud this as art is to dismiss the reality of violence against Black women and the way that this public performance reinforces violence to Black women as normal. There’s racism and sexism both, but the sexual violence in each is what I see.

I think that Kenyan artist and activist Shailja Patel is right to label it a “pornography of violence”.

The Crunk Feminist Collective, a WOC group, asks if the artist bothered to ask women survivors of female genital mutilation what they thought of his work.

Womanist blogger Renee Martin had a strong response that I want to quote here:

Cutting into a woman’s body even symbolically is violent. To watch as these White women laughed and consumed cake, supposedly out of concern for a problem that does not happen to them, belittles the struggle to end the horror of FGM. The fact that the cake is a red velvet cake underscores the violence as the red symbolizes blood. Hasn’t enough Black blood been spilled in the name of White supremacy and patriarchy?”

“I felt pain looking at that cake. It leaves me speechless and unable to articulate the hurt. That this was done by a supposed liberal group of White women comes as no surprise, because there is a long history of White people claiming to be concerned with the plight of people of colour, even as they work to support and strength White supremacy.”

I’ve been working on a paper about Hagar and Sarah in the biblical story and thinking about relationships between Black and white women. I’ve been thinking about how white women betray Black women. I’ve been thinking about how white and Black women can be (and are) not just friends or allies but lovers.

I can’t get enough “academic” distance to see this as art, because the mutilation of the body of a woman is violence. As a lesbian, the image of a woman’s body isn’t just a reflection of my own body, but is the image of my Beloved. And as a white woman, I have to see myself in the minister’s body, too, in her hand on the knife, and ask: what would I have done? what am I doing?

3 Responses to “‘Art’ as Violence against Black Women’s Bodies”

  1. Kristen says:

    I’m not sure that I agree that this representation amounted to violence. I think the art and the symbolism is in the action and reaction to what happened. If this had been a scene in a movie, would we still call it racism against women’s bodies? If he’d painted it instead of acting it out, would the results be different?

    I do see what he did as art in the sense that he symbolically depicted his subject. Of course, everyone’s definition of art and what it’s meant to do is different. The women in the picture and on the videos are laughing because they don’t get it, and the artist didn’t take the time to explain to them why they shouldn’t be laughing. But isn’t that part of the point – no one should have to explain to a room full of women why female genital mutilation is wrong. As a woman, the violation is readily apparent to me.

    The “art” isn’t really the problem, the behavior of the women in the room, however, is. The fact that this controversy isn’t doing anything to generate a real discussion about FGM is another. Where are the women that are victims of this? Why haven’t people been blogging about organizations we can donate to to help stop this, women we can reach out to learn their stories, etc. We’re spending so much time debating whether this is art or not, whether we should applaud it or not and so on that we aren’t spending enough time giving FGM victims a platform upon which to share their history, pain and stories.

    • Kathleen Saadat says:

      Thank you for for your salient observations, especially “This is sexual violence against Black women”. I think it is by extension, sexual violence against all women. The symbolic mutilation of this figure was both RACIST AND SEXIST. If the women in the room had not seen BLACK as “not them” they might have more readily seem the WOMAN-CAKE as themselves and the ritual, I believe would have held a different meaning for them. Long discussion on whether or not the cake was “art” seems a red herring. It does not matter since art can be “good” or “bad” and used to support or denounce any point of view. I keep trying to imagine myself, knife in hand cutting into this cake anywhere, regardless of the color of the cake. Where would I cut that would not suggest violence. Her head, breast, back, eyes? It appears that no one spoke out against the symbol or the act. Shame on all of those women.

  2. Diana Vezmar-Bailey says:

    The violence described & the response of laughter takes me to a place of speechlessness & deep sadness. I’m sure anger & outrage will be next….

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