Minstrels and ministers make bad bedfellows

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Minstrels and ministers make bad bedfellows

Art installation or not, politicians have no business taking part in minstrel shows, argues Carmen Price, an American freelance writer based in Stockholm, in reaction to the 'racist' cake controversy involving Swedish minister of culture Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth.


After reading Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth’s defense of her actions in Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet, I get the feeling that the minister of culture is more interested in rendering herself a martyr of artistic self-expression than genuinely apologizing to her offended constituents.

According to Adelsohn Liljeroth, “art must be allowed to provoke” and “pose uncomfortable questions”.

Give me a break.

Adelsohn Liljeroth may not be an overt racist, but she has shown herself to be both overtly ignorant and overtly narcissistic.

Her participation in Makode Linde’s performance art installation at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet's celebration of World Art Day was offensive in the deepest way, and she had no business taking part in a minstrel show, art installation or not.

Since Shakespeare’s Othello, people of African descent have been caricatured in various degrading manifestations of black face, but the American minstrel show, from which Linde clearly derives the inspiration for his aesthetic, has undoubtedly played the largest role in spreading racist black archetypes across the globe

Minstrel shows began as black face variety acts performed by both black and white people in the Antebellum South. These shows caricatured black people as lazy, happy clappy, and/or buffoonish.

The menacing, white-woman crazy Buck; the back-talking, insubordinate Mammy; the eye-bulging, watermelon-gobbling Pickaninny; the hypersexual Jezebel – these are just a few of the abominably demeaning images still deeply ingrained in our collective psyche, and black people across the world are still chained to the erroneous beliefs surrounding these stereotypes.

Black Swedish artist Makode Linde clearly uses these archetypes as a way to critique and lampoon racism, and it is his right as an artist to do so.

I may not like it, it may make me feel uncomfortable, but in a free society to you do not limit artistic expression. In a free society we all agree that the value of a work of art is left up to individual aesthetic judgment, even at the expense of our own opinions and sometimes morals.

That is Free Speech 101.

But Adelsohn Liljeroth is not an artist or private art patron--she is a public servant.

And any good politician knows that their ability to exercise free speech is limited by the constraints of political correctness: when or where have politicians ever been allowed to say or do whatever they want? Since when are politicians supposed to be provocative and offensive by way of installation art?

Adelsohn Liljeroth’s brazen and audacious performance of a “clitorectomy” on a racist cake is more than a bad judgment call – it demonstrates her lack of respect for African-descended Swedes, a lack of respect for the office she holds, and an unnerving sense of entitled arrogance.

Sweden isn’t that far removed from the days of the Statens Institut för Rasbiologi ('The State Institute for Race Biology') and race-based forced sterilizations (not to mention mock slave auctions at Lund University) to be in a position to have their white minister of culture making a mockery of institutionalized racism.

Despite Sweden’s global reputation as a bastion social liberalism, it is in no way a paragon of racial equality, as evidenced by the nation’s confusion regarding how to integrate their burgeoning multicultural populations beyond the confines of parallel societies such as Malmö’s Rosengård or Stockholm’s Rinkeby.

Adelsohn Liljeroth’s actions have not raised more “awareness” for genital mutilation in Africa and frankly, I don’t see how a gathering of cultural elites at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet could do anything to put a halt to the horrors of female circumcision.

The performance art installation was certainly a display of self-congratulatory avant-gardism, but in my opinion, it did nothing to effect real social-change vis-a-vis women’s rights and the protection of women’s bodies.

If a picture speaks a thousand words, then a video speaks a million.

In this case we have both and they portray Adelsohn Liljeroth with the white, Swedish left-wing elite laughing, smiling, and drinking wine all while cheerfully engaging in a racist minstrel spectacle.

And there wasn’t a black face in the crowd (except for that of the artist in the cake).

Adelsohn Liljeroth clearly sees herself as the victim of the general populace of philistines who don’t “appreciate” or “get” modern art.

So let me put it to her this way: If the cake had been a Nazi-era Jewish caricature, would you have gone within five kilometers of the knife, minister Adelsohn Liljeroth?

Carmen Price is a American freelance writer and former Fulbright fellow based in Stockholm.

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