On Having Your Cake and Eating It Too: Black (Diasporic/Nordic) Arts

I.

There are some things that seem too volatile to be touched, that confound consideration. Moments, that when they appear, time opens up, reaches across space, prods, squeezes, cathecting pain and pleasure. These moments pivot between fragility and indestructibility and show their inter-animation; sometimes, they take the form of a single black stone or a monstrous grotesque that challenges ideas of durability, sustainability, critique. In what follows, I think with Afrofabulations, re-siting Nyong’o’s concern with the “crushed black” in the work of both Kara Walker and Regina José Galindo. The burnt cork of Galindo’s Piedra and the sugar of Walker’s A Sublety intermingle with black fondant and charcoal below, uniting geographies of blackness with and as detritus of bodies and time: “If the present unfolds disjunctively from the seeds of a past it always contains, then there is never ‘escaping’ or ‘working through’ the past in a simple sense” (105). The blackness we leave behind will find us in the end.

II.

I imagine I would have screamed too, echoing and berating the artist. It is 15 April 2012. In celebration of World Art Day and the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Swedish Artist’s Society, the Modern Museum in Stockholm invites six artists to create cakes for the occasion. Afro-Swedish artist Makode Linde creates a blackface cake, red velvet interior, black fondant exterior, the body of which is modeled after the body of Saartjie Baartman, the head of which is his own in blackface makeup— bulging white eyes, mouth outlined in red. The Swedish Culture Minister Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth opens the event, “cuts” the cake in the genital area; when she does, Linde screams in pain. What happens next–Liljeroth and other white onlookers laughing, smiling, and taking pictures while continuing to eat or “mutilate” the cake amidst Linde’s screams–is still not fully understood. This incident marks a truly spectacular and grotesque moment of crisis specific to Sweden, but shared by so many other insufficiently decolonized geographies in which white innocence reigns.

There are conflicting reports about whether “the Painful Cake” intended to expose the indifference of the white elite to violence against black bodies in Sweden and the world. Others considered it a critique of the elite art world’s rabid consumption of black bodies and their art. Still others saw a commentary on the violence and inhumanity of female genital mutilation in an African context. Linde’s own identity as queer, of mixed Swedish and African descent, and a provocateur who routinely works with blackface themes spurred debates about an artist’s responsibility to their putative “communities” and, more interestingly, the difference between critiquing and enacting racism in an artistic performance. And this is perhaps the crux of this odd moment of “cannibalism”–regardless (or because) of what the artist intended, this cake got stuck in the craw and was regurgitated, bringing Swedish encounters with blackness right back up on the national table, exposing the depth of unfinished racial business. The screams and laughter echoed across Sweden’s racial past, its participation in the slave trade, colonization, European imperialism, its experiments in and institutionalization of race biology, the rhetoric and policies surrounding its aid, development, and immigration/refugee work. This was a moment of afro-fabulation, when “blackness grasps us even as we seek to grasp it” (3). One day in a museum conjured a past and questioned a future for the black minority and white majority in a country whose own imaginary would deny their interrelation.

III.

It is years later; the cake still haunts. I wonder about its metaphorical and actual afterlife. How did they clean it up? Linde must have come out from under the cake, washed the makeup off and gone home; the mutilated cake must have been thrown away, swept into a garbage can along with the remains of the other confections. The next morning, even that evening, the video of the event was viral. Even now, if you mention “Sweden” and “cake,” people recognize the reference and try to square that “black” “woman’s” face, body, and screams with those families in the Ikea catalog and the Volvo commercials. When I am doing this calculus, the new math of social democracy, globalization, and immigration, I think of another performance that unsettles, this time more quietly.

There is no audible screaming, but the violence is still there, heard as the striking of a lash. We come upon her alone in what looks like a museum. It is clear she is enacting a ritual as there are white markings on her brown body and face, enabling her to be and see differently. A white cloth, insufficient for the Danish climate, but suitable for a Danish West Indian one, covers her body. She picks up the whip, carefully, even lovingly, rubs charcoal onto it, a version of “crushed black,” “the dark materialist counterpoint” to a “progressive historical framework” (47). She stands up, faces the blank white canvas, steadies and readies herself. Stepping back, she cocks her arm in one sleek, fast, and furious motion and unleashes; the whip hits the canvas, leaving an incisive black mark. She repeats this gesture again, and again, and again, until the canvas is full of marks, until the whiteness is covered, until blackness is visible, the charcoal now clinging to her body too.

This piece, Jeannette Ehlers’s “Whip It Good,” enacts what the late decolonial theorist and artist Alanna Lockward calls a journey from “resistance to re-existence.” Ehlers, an AfroDanish artist with Trinidadian roots, is here, in every lash that lands on the canvas, opening up time, enabling the past to be in the present, the present to hold the past. A scene of subjection in both senses of the phrase, the piece is a not uncomplicated rendering of the violence of colonization and slavery in the Danish West Indies, a history largely unremembered in contemporary Denmark. “Forgotten, but not gone” (118)–at once seizing the power of the whip and conjuring the memory of what it must have meant to be subject to its power, Ehlers comments on history and memory and on the visibility/viability of blackness in contemporary Denmark and in the art world.

A fellow artist, a resident in the Caribbean who is of Caribbean descent, says to Ehlers that she never understood why any black person would willingly pick up the whip, “re-create” this all too common scene. That was until she visited Denmark. Then, it became clear that it would take this kind of perversity for blackness to be legible and acknowledged, for time to be capable of bending back toward the fullness of their shared history. One of the performances of “Whip It Good” takes place in the West Indian Warehouse in Copenhagen, where the goods extracted from the colonies—coffee, sugar, rum— were stored. No longer the repository of the raw materials of Denmark’s vast colonial wealth, the building now stores the Royal Cast Collection, thousands of plaster casts of sculptures and reliefs from art institutions and religious buildings from around the world. They are all white, some of them monumental (Michelangelo’s David) and broken.

IV.

Is it possible to think these performances together despite, or perhaps through, their differences? They share many similarities; at the same time, their differences shape their efficacy and afterlives as both performance and politics of a racial imaginary in perhaps the northernmost corner of the black diaspora, Scandinavia. Useful to both are the black body, an approximation of burnt cork, and possibilities of participation and exploitation. They are also exorcisms that must fail, and in failure, rupture time and space. Both performances move us from and between what Michelle Wright would call a Middle Passage blackness, blackness formed out of Gilroyvian roots and routes, to a quantum blackness that is a “when” and a “where” and not a what. As such, time shifts away from the teleological and continual progress toward “freedom”; instead, we hold tight to “tenseless” moments of incredible tension, when we can be in our own time, range around in it/them, find terror and truths (10).

As I think of these performances, I feel compelled to repeat, as a kind of mantra, wisdom from another ur-text in black time studies, another treatise in the black arts, that cycles around the difficulty and necessity of fabulation, Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Sited somewhere in the middle, we/I/you hear, “All of it is now                      it is always now”—”This is not a story to pass on.”

 

Cover image: Jeanette Ehlers, Whip It Good (2015). Performance, Brundyn Gallery, South Africa. Photo by Nicolaj Recke. 

 

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Monica L. Miller

Monica L. Miller is associate professor of English and Africana studies at Barnard College, Columbia University. A specialist in contemporary African American and Afro-diasporic literature and cultural studies, she is the author of the book Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity. She is currently at work on a new book project, "Blackness Swedish Style: Race, Diaspora, and Belonging," which considers cultural production by the emerging black community in Sweden and its connection to black European identity formation and cultural/political movements.