What’s Wrong With This Picture? “Provocative Art” a Blatantly Racist Portrayal of Horrific Human Rights Abuse

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Commentary Human Rights

What’s Wrong With This Picture? “Provocative Art” a Blatantly Racist Portrayal of Horrific Human Rights Abuse

Jodi Jacobson

I am no expert in the analysis of "art." But I know racism, class-ism, and misogyny when I see them, and they were no more visible this week than in Stockholm, Sweden.

I am no expert in the analysis of “art.” But I know racism, class-ism, and misogyny when I see them, even though sometimes any and all of these are “hard” to see clearly because they are more usually hidden and insidious than they are overt.  

I know, understand, and support the notion that “art” must often be provocative to get across a point, to educate, illuminate, shine a light on, de-stigmatize or de-mystify an issue or person such that the provocation challenges conventional thinking.

Which is why, in my own inexpert opinion, what happened in Sweden this week was not “art.”

An event that quite literally makes fun of a tragic and devastating human rights violation affecting the health and lives of more than 140 million women and girls worldwide and de-humanizes those millions of individuals in the process is not “art.”

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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It is most especially not “art” if it demeans the actual people subject to those violations (countless of whom may be undergoing such violations right now, as I write this article), is not connected in any way to the feelings, analysis, or portrayals of the people whose pain it purports to represent, and, perhaps even worse, becomes the butt of a party joke by people in power.

And this is what happened this week in Stockholm, Sweden when at a World Art Day celebration guests, including the Swedish Minister of Culture, Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth, took a slice out of a cake crudely (not even a sufficient word) depicting the genital mutilation of an African woman as the head (which was the artist, a man) screamed in pain. And as the attendees laughed.

It is reminiscent, for me, of those painful scenes of the humiliation of prisoners by American soldiers in Abu Ghraib, except for the fact that it took place in Stockholm and no “actual” woman was being mutilated.

I wouldn’t bother to give space to this disgusting and vulgar scene if it weren’t for the fact that I feel we are literally beseiged by the resurgence of so many things we naively thought were “gone” or getting better… misogyny, racism, class-ism, homophobia and fear. 

In fact, racism, classism, and misogyny all are still rife within our culture and those of most countries, even the ones, like Sweden, which ironically, was once known for its funding and support internationally for advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights, including working against genital mutilation.

Blatant racism was evident in the killing of Trayvon Martin, and it is not isolated. Blatant misogyny and discrimination against women is evident in everything from the bald-faced, unapologetic displays of the kind we see daily in the United States from Wisconsin lawmakers; governors of Kansas, Nebraska, Texas and too many others; the United States House of Representatives; and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to the less overt but equally insidious acts embedded in paying women less pay for equal work or assuming adding one woman to the all-male board of a large company means “women are represented.”  Blatant class-ism is now the official governing platform of the Republican party in the United States today and conveniently, can also now be justified as a biblical command.  And blatant homophobia and fear continue to be perpetuated by “faith leaders” and government representatives alike throughout the world.

I have nothing inspired or eloquent to say, I have no words of wisdom here about this newest degradation of women.  In fact, I am speechless. 

I can only say that “artistic freedom” is not about the vulgar humiliation of the powerless, just as “religious freedom” is not about religious institutions robbing people of their rights and “economic freedom” is not found in the powerful robbing workers of their rights and ability to live decent lives.

We are going backward. I can only hope that the more we point out and hold to the light of day all of these trends, the nearer we can come to fighting against and erasing these cancers for once and for all.