The first time the world heard about Swedish artist Makode Linde he was in blackface and pretending to be a cake, in a performance art piece at a Museum of Modern Art event in Stockolm in 2012. The cake was made in the form of a black woman's torso—a "black-faced Venus of Willendorf," as he puts it—while the artist's actual head was painted in full black make-up.
His body hidden under the serving table, Linde screamed when the first piece of the Painful Cake was sliced to reveal a red sponge—giving the impression of a woman whose genitals were being cut. Quite literally adding insult to injury, the person cutting the cake was then-Swedish Minister of Culture Lena Adelsohn-Liljeroth. At the time she thought she was taking part in an art installation aimed at drawing attention to female genital mutilation in Africa.
Obviously, photographs and video footage from the event went viral, with many calling both the piece and the minister's part in it racist, insensitive, and offensive. The Afro-Swedish society actually called for Adelsohn Liljeroth to resign, while Linde made it clear that his work focuses on nitpicking at racial stereotypes.
Three years later, the controversial artist is working on a new exhibition titled Negerkungens återkomst—which in English roughly translates to "the return of the negro king." Understandably, the show (set to open tomorrow at Stockholm's Kulturhuset) has already divided Swedish art and culture circles. So much so that Kulturhuset Art Director Marianne Lindberg de Geer resigned to protest the venue's attempt to censor Linde's title.
I recently sat down with Linde to talk about all that.
VICE: How does it feel to be preparing for an exhibition while you're in the middle of a media scandal about it at the same time?
Makode Linde: I've been working on this exhibition for the last two years with Marianne Lindberg de Geer, so at the moment I am simply sad that she is not here anymore. Marianne is not only an artistic director but also an artist herself, and we've always had a mutual understanding and an open dialogue. Now it feels like people can still edit my exhibition, even though they do not have the same artistic authority. It's quite difficult but I refuse to say goodbye before the fat lady has sung. Well, in this case, it's an old, fat, straight white man. In spite of all that, I am excited and I believe that it will be a good show.
There are so many different voices in the conversation surrounding the title of the exhibition. Some seem to think it's just a PR trick and others are deeply offended. But nobody really knows what the art is actually going to be like. Could you reveal a bit for us?
From the beginning I've wanted to do a show that is related to the world of the fairy tales. Kulturhuset is a place that is very related to the children's world for me. When I was a child, I would go there and watch Pinocchio and other classic children's plays. My art is about much more adult and rather unpleasant topics, but I wanted to interpret tales for adult children. My previous artworks have dealt with historical events, such as the transatlantic slave trade. I would use them as a starting point and write my own fantasy scenarios. This time I took classic tales and transformed them into a story about Africa and blackness.
Obviously, I understand that the title is controversial, and that is definitely why I chose it.
Fairy tales include universal symbols that are open to interpretation. In my work, I deal a lot with the symbol of the dark forest. When it's dark we cannot see everything, so our brain starts filling in the blanks. This light phenomenon translates directly into a metaphor for our fear of the unknown. I like to work with simple symbols that even children can understand in their own way. Some years ago, when I was still in art school, a seven-year-old kid came to my studio. She looked at my Afromantics figures and said, "They smile, but they do not look happy." She just hit the nail on the head. She didn't know anything about post-colonialism or racist stereotypes but she could see the real image.
Painful Cake, 2012
It's the second time your work has raised strong feelings. The first time around, when you presented the now infamous Painful Cake at the Museum of Modern Art, you said that it was time for a debate about racial issues in Sweden. Can you see any difference in the shape of the debate now?
I feel the conversation is more open now. The similarity between then and now is that many people seem to overestimate how smart and tricky I am, and how much I actually plan. It's quite humbling to be judged as being so calculating. Obviously, I understand that the title is controversial, and that is definitely why I chose it. But I never expected to be censored, nor did I foresee the actual size of the scandal. I didn't expect the resignation of the art director. Instead, Kulturhuset's administration should have expected a controversial title from me. Actually, I'm just doing what I am expected to do. It's quite surprising that it's such a shock to everyone.
Let's get to the title then. Who is the "Negro King" you refer to in your exhibition?
The character itself has appeared in Pippi Longstocking, the world famous children's book written by Astrid Lindgren. Astrid Lindgren is a Swedish national treasure and her books are in every Swedish library. The title is actually understandable in the Swedish context, but in English it loses a lot of its cultural connotations. It's interesting to compare Lindgren's king with mine. It differs through context and the times. And the real problem is not the word she used; it's that a white, fat guy moves to the South Pacific and rules over the black natives.
I'm just doing what I am expected to do. It's quite surprising that it's such a shock to everyone.
Under all these layers, my art always points back to me. As far as I know, I'm the only well-known Swedish black artist. The last time I presented a piece of art in Moderna Museet [the Museum of Modern Art] there was a lot of buzz about it. And now I am back at another big Swedish institution. I'm back.
About the second part of the title [the word återkomst means "comeback" in Swedish]—why does the "Negro King" come back?
I chose the title because I wanted something that sounded like a fairy tale or a Hollywood film. There's something quite threatening about a comeback. Where is he coming back from? What was he doing wherever he was before? Is he coming back for revenge?
What do you hope to achieve in the Swedish art scene?
Somehow, among all that media buzz, I hope maybe some other black person in Sweden will see my exhibition and think that he or she can be an artist as well. When I went to art school, I was the only black person there. I wish I'd had another black Swedish artist to compare myself to back then.
What about all the people who feel offended by your title?
It is interesting to see how often we misinterpret what is offensive. For instance, how often do we see black people in ads in the metro? If you did, they would probably be in an ad for cheap calls to Africa or dental services. You wouldn't see many black people in a holiday travel ad. It may be problematic to see a black person on a beach: Is he or she a refugee? As if black people only have bad teeth and never go on vacation.
Which begs the question: What kind of images of black people should we have in the media? Should it just be the empowering images of good and heroic black people? There was a period in film history when all black characters needed to be the good ones. But this took all of the nuanced, complicated roles away from black actors and made the portrayal of the black community very one-dimensional and narrow.
You once said that you wished there would be no further need for the questions you ask with your art. How do you feel about that now?
Sadly, I don't believe that will happen in our lifetime. I do not think our society will become so mixed that there won't be some kind of "otherness." And as long as there is somebody "different" there's going to be room for racism. As soon as people have a chance to band together and decide that they are a "we," and that another group therefore constitutes a "them," prejudice will flourish and spread. That's why I also think blackness can be a metaphor for otherness, for being the underdog, the villain, the black worker. As long as these structures exist, there will always be a need for the expressions that I create.
Swedish racism is particularly sneaky—so polished and subtle, so hidden in the smallest of gestures.
You live in Berlin and create art both there and in Stockholm. How do you feel your art is influenced by these two cities?
I do appreciate that I can do my art thanks to Sweden, but it's also in Sweden that racists and homophobes attack me. Not in Berlin. It's in Sweden that my art provokes a shit storm, seemingly out of nowhere. I would not be able to live here if I didn't have my sanctuary in Berlin. Berlin is more inspiring, free, and careless. People have fewer filters, they do not pretend. For instance, they can actually say quite racist things right in your face. Like this dude that came up to me at a club, hugged me, and said: "You know what, I accept black people." That would never happen in Sweden.
But Swedish racism is particularly sneaky—so polished and subtle, so hidden in the smallest of gestures. It is not even possible to defend yourself against it. You cannot just explode each time someone stares at you or rolls his or her eyes. There's little room for otherness here. I will probably not have many more exhibitions here for a while. I'm afraid many may not dare to invite me after this. To fight the authorities may seem fun at a distance but the consequence is you may not be welcome any more.
The exhibition Negerkungens Återkomst will open at Kulturhuset in Stockholm on January 30 and continue through April 24. More information can be found here.