Open Letter from African Women to the Minister of Culture: The Venus Hottentot CakePosted on Friday, April, 20th, 2012 by in Blog
Addendum to the Open Letter from African women to the Minister of Culture: The Venus Hottentot Cake, By Farah Tanis, Executive Director and Janeen Mantin, Program Coordinator, Cultural Competency and Education at Black Women’s Blueprint, April 20, 2012
“Contemporary forms of oppression do not routinely force people to submit. Instead, they manufacture consent for domination so that we lose our ability to question and thus collude in our own subordination.” Patricia Hill-Collins, Black Feminist Scholar.
Internalized racism has been one of the primary means by which we are constantly forced to perpetuate and collude in our own oppression and the oppression of others of our race. In the case of the “Venus Hottentot Cake”, equally devastating is that the artist Makode Aj Linde is Afro-Swedish. His own head adorned with long locks forms that of the naked Black woman in the cake, lying motionless on a table in a room surrounded by a laughing crowd. Not one Black woman, not one Black person in the room, except the artist and his cake. Makode Aj Linde is seen with a blackened face screaming with pain each time a Swedish guest cuts a slice from the cake. We are horrified as we try to make sense of this artist’s actions and we are perplexed by his explanation of the art as an awareness raising piece on the “practice of female genital mutilation” in certain African communities, or a practice that many African women’s rights defenders have come to rename female genital cutting (FGC).
The moment that cake was presented; the moment that cake was eaten; the moment that cake caused joy and excitement, re-opening the marvel that white Europeans felt at exploiting African women’s bodies—specifically, the sexualized celebration, the entrapment, the cutting of the genitalia of the Sara Baartman-like black body, the ethics of the artist comes into serious question, even if not the art itself, for the sake of “art”, for the sake of non-censorship. Racism was propped up in its ugliest form, facilitated by a Black artist and perpetuated on the representation of the body of a Black female.
No one consulted Black African women who have been at the forefront of the movement to end the practice of female genital cutting, often with little resources and in direct and dangerous conflict with their own communities. We echo Shailja Patel in stating: “What makes the cake episode so deeply offensive is the appropriation, by both artist and his audience, of African women’s bodies and experiences, while completely excluding real African women from the discourse. It is a pornography of violence.”
We disagree with the artist, that the various statements, comments, letters, and responses flooding the blogosphere represent “a shallow analysis of the work”, of his art. As he expresses that it is “sad if people feel offended”, we too are saddened by his lack of analysis and his acquiesce to racist and misogynist systems that not only serve to undermine the humanity of Black women, but also of Black men.
The Question of Art and Ethics:
On the sensitive and controversial question of ethics in the arts, we call on anti-racist, anti-misogynist artists to respond.
Ethics are defined as “a system of moral principles” which constantly factor into the choices we make, whether as artists or responsible governmental and/or institutional representatives. However, these decisions can become confused, making this system of principles seriously muddled and producing a blurry set of ethical guidelines, especially when competing priorities are at work—money and recognition vs. dignity and humanity. It is our personal opinion that this cake represents both ethical and moral violations not only in its presentation within the context of art, but within the department of cultural affairs sponsorship of it, regardless of country.
To the artist, by colluding in this or any level of oppression, and by providing the tool for the racialized/sexualized enjoyment of the visual body of a Black woman, by participating in the enticement of others to cut out and eat her cake vagina, which in the case of Sarah Baartman was first felt up, groped at, raped, looked at as a sexual enigma—is indeed an outrage.
Controversies and arguments abound as ethical decisions, or the lack thereof, play a role in institutional practice, in governmental practice—then you add the artist, as in this case, and you have a dangerous situation and a perpetuation on a global scale, another assault on Black women’s bodies. With the advent of technology today, our world is global. Technology allows us to see beyond our backyards. The world is watching as we still see layers of the objectification of black and indigenous peoples throughout the world, where institutions of cultural education reach their market by presenting dangerous ideologies of culture that objectify and exploit and dehumanize ethnic groups, such as Dr Kananazawa for his “Black Women Are Less Attractive” research. We are also fortunate, in the sense that we can use this same technology to respond and resist.
The fact that anthropologists, scientist, and other social scientist, educators and now this artist and the Swedish institution is being challenged around the world in outrage signals that, even through art, people want to be educated without harm, without violation, and without limitation.
It behooves each artist, or researcher, or activist, or educator, to be aware of their position and their privilege and power when communicating or producing what can then interpreted as some form of “reality” by those the product reaches. Conversely, it is the ethical job of the institution, in this case the department of cultural affairs in Sweden to use their monies to fund programming that educates without racism and exploitation. In addition, we believe it is also imperative that they work to redact and develop programs of reeducation to counter information promulgated throughout years and centuries, via exhibitions, world fairs, zoos, parks, and more, that have framed Black women continuously, as “lesser,” “inhumane,” “sexual creatures.”
When the department of cultural affairs ate and laughed on the caricature body of Sara Baartman, the head of the department showed herself incompetent and incapable of morally and ethically making choices and incapable of running the department of cultural affairs in Sweden.