When Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth, Sweden's culture minister, cut into a cake last Sunday, she had no idea the act would spark an international incident.
The cake was Afro-Swedish artist Makode Linde's latest work, part of a World Art Day celebration at Sweden's Modern Museum. He created a life-sized depiction of the upper body of a black woman. The head of the cake was the real artist's head, and he was painted in stereotypical black face, the kind historically used in minstrel shows. Each time an attendee carved a slice from the cake, he screamed.
The performance and cake were statements against female genital mutilation, Linde told NPR's Tell Me More. "I've been re-appropriating the black face, or the golliwog face, and putting it in different contexts. I usually put it on different symbols, like ancient philosophers or Greek gods."
But photos of Liljeroth, the culture minister, smiling as she cut into the cake have gone viral and set off a firestorm in a country that tends to shy away from conversations on race. The National Afro-Swedish Association is calling the episode a "racist spectacle," and calling on the minister to resign.
The incident has sparked a debate in the press and among Swedes in terms of both the limits of free speech and whether a politician can "get involved in something which can be interpreted as patently offensive to a large number of people," says David Landes, editor of The Local, Sweden's leading English language news website.
The minister did issue an apology on Thursday, writing: "I am sincerely sorry if anyone has misinterpreted my participation." However, she also said that art is intended to provoke and stood by the event's intention to celebrate free expression and the importance of protecting women.
"You're looking at a really potent cocktail of potentially explosive issues" including female genital mutilation, race, the depiction of women, culture and identity, Landes says. "These are the things art is supposed to make us think about, but there are so many ways it can go wrong."
Watch the video below, but please be warned that some might find its content disturbing:
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now, we want to head to Sweden, where the act of cutting a cake at a party has turned into an international incident. And we'd like to let you know that some might find the subject inappropriate or upsetting.
Earlier this week, attendees to Sweden's Modern Museum's World Art Day celebration were treated to a cake. The first person to be given the honor of cutting it was the minister of culture, Lena Adelsohn-Liljeroth. The problem was that the cake was shaped in the form of a black woman covered in black fondant. The face was in stereotypical blackface - the kind that used to be depicted in minstrel shows - with bulging eyes and lips.
Video of the event shows the attendees laughing and smiling as they cut the cake, starting at the genital area. Interestingly enough, the artist who created the cake is Swedish of African descent. He said it was meant as a statement on female genital mutilation. And in order to dramatize the issue, he participated in the event hidden under the table - and screamed every time somebody took a slice. We're going to play a short clip of that and I warn you once again, it's disturbing.
(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMING)
MARTIN: Photos of Sweden's culture minister smiling as she cut into the cake, though, have gone viral online, and have led to calls for her resignation. We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called upon David Landes. He is the editor of The Local; that's Sweden's leading English-language news website. And he's with us now from Stockholm. David, thanks so much for joining us.
DAVID LANDES: My pleasure.
MARTIN: Now, the National Afro-Swedish Association is calling this "racist spectacle," and has called upon the minister of culture to resign. And I'm wondering what the general reaction in Sweden has been.
LANDES: Well, this - not surprisingly - has caught a lot of people's attention. While that association has been the only one to kind of openly call for the minister to resign, the event has sparked a debate in the press and among Swedes - in terms of both the limits of free speech, and what right does a politician have to get involved in something which can be interpreted as patently offensive to a large number of people?
MARTIN: What has she said about this?
LANDES: Well, her sort of initial line was that art is meant to provoke. It is supposed to be something that prompts debate and discussion. She has also hinted that she didn't really know what she was getting herself into when she agreed to speak at this event, which was meant to sort of celebrate free expression and the importance of protecting women.
MARTIN: Well, I think, also, her initial reaction was: If you're mad, be mad at the artist, not me. And so we called him, and asked him what he had to say about this. And this is a short clip of what he had to say; here it is.
MAKODE LINDE: The piece is the part of a series where I've been re-appropriating the black face - or the golliwog face - and putting it in different contexts. I usually put it on typically Western symbols, like ancient philosophers or Greek gods; putting the blackface in a new context.
MARTIN: What about that? I mean, has any of the anger been directed at the artist, who - as I mentioned - is Swedish of African descent? Has anybody - mad at him, or are mainly people upset with the minister of culture for her participation?
LANDES: I think the latter. I mean, certainly the artist has come in for a certain amount of criticism - although I think it's more, people just don't like the art, or question whether or not it really does what it purports to do. But I think - and this is where the strategy of the Afro-Swedish Association is rather smart. They have not tried to make this a debate about the artist and his artwork. It's the debate about - as a government minister representing the people, why don't you take a little more care, and be a bit more thoughtful, about the kind of things that one gets themselves involved with?
And if it doesn't betray a racist sensibility - I don't think anyone is really thinking that the culture - the minister of culture is racist. But if anything, she's a bit - as I think the Afro-Swedish Association - a bit ignorant, and maybe incompetent.
MARTIN: I'm speaking with David Landes. He's the editor of The Local. That's Sweden's leading English-language news website. We're talking about an incident that's gone viral. The minister of culture was videotaped cutting a cake in the shape of a black woman, and that has prompted calls for her resignation.
Are Swedes surprised by the level of attention this has gotten around the world?
LANDES: I think the Swedes have not been wrestling with the issue of race in the same way that it has been dealt with in the United States, And there are a lot of other issues - or a lot of other instances where this has been kind of revealed. And one took place last year at one of Sweden's most respected universities, Lund University, where a group of students came to a costume party dressed as slaves in a mock slave auction.
And the only person who got offended was the American exchange student, who drew attention to it and brought it - attention to the Afro-Swedish Association, and it also garnered international attention. Jesse Jackson weighed in on the matter. He came to visit the university later on, to speak about race. So there was a conversation, but I don't know if anything really came of it.
MARTIN: Well, what do you think this means? Are - kind of - Swedes kind of stumbling into kind of the multicultural world here, or do you think there was an attempt, in a way, to be offensive?
LANDES: No. I think that it's really more the former. I mean, I know many Swedes; I've lived here, interacted. And I don't find that, you know, Swedes are racists, per se. They haven't learned how to talk about these things, so they don't talk about them. So they fester, and then they kind of come up in these explosive ways that don't necessarily engender a dialogue that's constructive and moves things forward, in a way.
But the reality is, is Sweden is 20 percent foreign-born. It wasn't always that way, and society is still coping with exactly how to deal with that. And it's sort of - they don't know where the line is until they step over it.
MARTIN: David Landes is the editor of The Local ;that's Sweden's leading English-language news website. And he was kind enough to join us on the line, from Stockholm.
David, thanks so much for speaking with us.
LANDES: Thank you.
MARTIN: To see the photos and video related to this story, visit NPR.org. Click on the Programs tab, and then TELL ME MORE. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.