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Lois Mailou Jones: Initiation, Liberia

It is all over the Internet now. I saw it on HuffPo yesterday. And on Twitter today. I refuse to copy the photograph or add a link even. If you still haven’t read or seen the vile photograph of the Swedish ‘Culture’ minister, Lena Liljeroth, cutting a cake in celebration of the 75th birthday of Sweden’s museum of modern art – Moderna Museet, you only need to Google any of them for the story. As performance art and in celebration of the “freedom of expression” and also for World Art Day, participating artists were asked to bring a cake. According to this account, the minister, (an apparent culture skeptic and critic of provocative art) was asked to cut the first cake that was rolled in after being warned that it was a performance piece. She acquiesced; the cake was rolled in; she cut it (although why specifically in the genital region, I am yet to fathom); with nary a protest (in fact, if the article is to be believed, with ‘nervous’ laughter); a photographer snapped a picture; it went viral and here we are.

To the expected outpouring of criticism, the response has been: 1) that this was ‘performance art’ and as such was intended to represent truly, the freedom of expression, 2) that the said minister is an avowed critic of provocative art and 3) that the artist is an Afro-Swede whose own head served as the muse for the cake’s screaming (literally) version (a particularly vile defence).

To address points 1 &2 (point 3 is not worthy of a rebuttal):

If you indeed have the freedom to express yourself in this way, everyone else has an equal freedom to castigate it as, sickeningly crude. This particular work deliberately picks at the already frayed seam of the African-American’s racial identity. I choose to single out the African American since the unhealed wound of the inhuman bondage of slavery is especially unique to them. It is bad enough to inflict this sort of thing on a hapless public in the name of art and the freedom to express oneself; it is even worse, to call this an artistic and intellectual effort. Nothing in the range of even ‘mildly clever’ can be used to describe this monstrous anomaly parading as art.

As for the reaction it was meant to provoke (don’t forget this is ‘provocative art’), by Mr. Palme’s condoning tone, the audience tittered nervously. They responded to this visual violence with laughter. Laughter.

Not outrage. Not angry silence. Not a refusal to participate in this not-so-smart attempt to obscure abuse as art. Any or all of these would have been a provoked reaction too. Indeed, such a response would have assuaged. Might have been an uplifting reassurance that we have kicked history in the eye and made the tough transition to our better natures. Instead, what we are left with is a macabre display that demeans art and a grotesque response that slices the scabs off our wounds and sears them anew.

Jacob Lawrence, The Libaray

Unlike other peoples that keep the flame of memory alive by the repeated regurgitation of their oppressions; the history of the African American is much obscured and in fact, denied. In the words of Ira Berlin, a celebrated historian of slavery, ‘social identity is rooted in history’. The African-American struggle with identity is mirrored by the absence of a past.

It would be useful here to remember the horror of this shameful history that used the very body of Africans as art. In her book, ‘Medical Apartheid’, Harriet Washington painfully troughs this savage ditch of our not so recent past. In a heartbreaking chapter titled, Circus Africanus, she details the use of African slaves as art exhibits and scientific specimens all over the United States and Europe, with cities like New York and Paris playing host. I list some of these long forgotten horrors from her book, in the hope that these stories of human indignity are remembered, retold, and that our collective memories will never let these atrocities rise again, in whatever form.

1. Ota Benga, 23 years, an African captured in the Congo, was exhibited in the Bronx Zoo in the 20th century (1906) in a monkey cage along with a gorilla and an orangutan.  The New York Times actively supporting this as furthering the understanding of ‘evolution’. His cage bore a placard titled: “The African Pygmy, ‘Ota Benga.’ Height 4 feet 11 inches. Weight 103 pounds. Brought from the Kasai River, Congo Free State, South Central Africa by Dr. Samuel P. Verner. Exhibited each afternoon during September.” (pp. 76-77). From the Times: There were 40,000 visitors to the park on Sunday. Nearly every man, woman and child of this crowd made for the monkey house to see the star attraction in the park, the wild man from Africa. They chased him about the grounds all day, howling, jeering, and yelling. Some of them poked him in the ribs, others tripped him up, all laughed at him. (p. 78).

Ota Benga was at long last freed. In a final act of hopeless submission, he committed suicide.

2. Black hair was described as wool (p. 78) and the features of displayed blacks were used to locate their low status on a supposed evolutionary continuum between monkeys and whites. (p. 82). PT Barnum and his traveling circus commonly used Africans in, and as, display.

3. The Khoi are a group of hunter-gatherers in the region occupied by today’s South Africa. They were renamed Hottentot by the Dutch, a pejorative term to describe their clicking language. The gluteal and labial prominence of the Khoi women generated interest amongst the differently endowed races who proceeded to equate their anatomic disposition with sexual shamelessness and immorality. One of their ilk, a woman called Saartjie (pronounced Sart-kay) was captured by the British and used as human display/medical specimen in London. Her body was subject to all manner of medical examination and procedures. Over a short period of time she went from being a medical specimen to a circus one, paraded naked in public, in parties and in street-side cages as the Hottentot Venus. She died of an unknown infectious illness at the age of 27. Even in death, Saartjie was not allowed to rest. Her body parts were displayed in jars and her skeleton hung in the Musee De l’Homme in Paris (pgs. 82-85).

The list of African-Americans that were subject to the most inhuman indignities for slavery, for medicine, or for pure exhibitionist pleasure, is simply too long to be told here. The narrative of our history has conveniently pushed their unsung tales into deep long forgotten crypts. Ms. Washington has done us all a yeoman service by rescuing them in what, I can only imagine, must have been an extremely difficult effort. Their story demands a read. Their names deserve to be remembered.

For Mr. Makode Linde and Ms. Lena Liljeroth, I have two words that they will do well to never forget: Ota Benga and Saartjie. Our time needs to give their unjust past, a grave and remorseful respect.

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