Helen Gould is reading English Literature at the University of Warwick.
When you look at this picture, what do you see?
Many see an audience at a museum, appreciating and engaging with an intelligent, satirical art piece - a metaphor for the lazy attitude of the Western world towards the practice of female genital mutilation taking place in certain African countries. The artist, Makode Linde, states that he was asked to create this piece by the Swedish Art Organisation, and the museum claims that this piece was intended to raise awareness of female circumcision, although the artist himself stressed that this was not the main purpose of the cake. This begs the question: “What, then, was the purpose?”
What I see, in common with many other black women, is a room full of white people cutting into and consuming a representation of our bodies: smiling, laughing, and taking photographs as they do so. What we see is a reminder that black women have indeed been literally cut up by white people – J. Marion Sims, the “father of gynecology”, perfected his techniques on the unwilling bodies of black slaves, without anaesthesia. Henrietta Lacks had parts of her cervix removed, without her permission, to be used in medical research; these became known as HeLa cells, which have been repeatedly grown and used, though her family have received nothing. Medically unnecessary, and often non-consensual, hysterectomies were performed on thousands of poor black women in America, often simply to give students the opportunity to practice. We recall that photographs and postcards – artworks, perhaps – of the lynching of black men and women were distributed and sold, so that those who mutilated and killed us could always keep that memory safe.
We remember the black woman that the figure of this cake is based on – the South African woman Saartjie Baartman, who was persuaded by an English doctor to tour Britain and France, under the pretense that she would become rich. Instead, she became a curiosity, forced to exhibit her body to the public (the aristocracy had private showings). She was “led by her keeper and exhibited like a wild beast, being obliged to walk, stand or sit as he ordered”; in Paris, she was given to a travelling circus. Later, scientists used her body to prove the racial superiority of white Europeans; and after her death, her genitalia were preserved and shown Museum de l'Homme until 1974. Her remains were not returned to South Africa until 2002.
Even without all of this history, are those of us with African heritage expected to look upon the spectacle of white people devouring our image with acceptance and an uncritical eye? The willingness of this white audience to simulate an act of cannibalism on a black body, whilst the head of that cake screams in pain, is profoundly disturbing. It has been suggested to me that perhaps this is what Linde meant to happen – that he intended his artwork to highlight the racism still inherent in everyday life in most Western countries. If that is the case, where is the proof that this cake has succeeded in its aim? The reaction of an audience who fully understood that premise would surely not be to laugh and act entirely undisturbed, or to whisper in the artist's ear that “[his] life will be better after this”. The appropriate reaction would be one of horror; there should have been some evidence of striking a nerve. It should have meant something terrible, and it should have reminded the audience of a long history of rape, enslavement, torture, and genocide. If this was the intended message, it would seem that it has been lost in translation.
Myself and other black women have been told that we should see this simply as a work of art, a positive contribution to the conversation on racial relations, a creative expression of oppression, though it tells us nothing new. It is not informing us of anything that we do not already know, and could have transmitted its message in a thousand different, less horrifying ways. It has done nothing to assist black women as a whole, including those of us who have experienced, or will experience, mutilation. It does not make the audience relate more to the representation of a black body on the table, since they have seemingly no hesitation in treating it as a simple foodstuff. It has done nothing to refute or problematise the idea that portraying our bodies – and they are our bodies, not Linde's – in this way is wrong and harmful to us.
It is simply confirming to us, once again, that the black woman's body is still open and available for anyone to use, display, and degrade as hurtfully as they like, provided they can say it has a message.