Blackface, the act and art of caricaturing African skins and features, is a practice that won’t die. It lives on in the fashion industry and advertising, where outrageous imagery and shock are important selling points. The figure of Black Pete in the Netherlands—Santa Claus’ slave—persists in their Christmas traditions, though many people say that Pete is “black” because of soot. In Britian, Golliwogs are beloved toys and many people are unaware that ‘gollys’ are slightly altered minstrel figures. Blackface, dolls, mammy figures—all serve to send the message of the undesirability and the alieness of the black body. Are we even human?
There are now several artists who have attempted to reclaim these racially charged images. The most controversial of these is the Swedish artist Makode Linde. His most (in)famous work was performative. A red velvet cake was formed into the shape of the Hottentot Venus and decorated with black fondant icing. The artist served as the grotesque cake’s head, and every time someone took a piece of the blood-red cake, he screamed.
The purpose of this performance was to highlight the issue of female genital mutilation. It was lurid, and many critics thought it trivialized the plight of these young women, something I agree with. The piece was disturbing and problematic, but it was also confrontational. The cake was set up in an art gallery, and there are many pictures of well appointed white folk laughing at the horrific spectacle. I go back and forth about whether this work is the ultimate trollery or a multilayered thought-provoking piece.
I have checked out Linde’s other work, and it uses grotesque images of black faces and juxtaposes them in European settings. In one, Queen Elizabeth (the current one) stands next to a man defaced with Golliwog-like features. The same face appears on the head of a classical Greek statue. What draws me in also chases me away. Here, Linde’s work is more slightly nuanced. It is still very unsettling and has the subtlety of a Julie Traymor production.
I play with black grotesques and archetypes in my own work; I think what I do with them is less ambiguous than Linde’s work. For instance, my story “Catch Him By The Toe” riffs on the Sambo story. These horrible images, archetypes, tropes and stories are a part of our heritage. If the fashion industry can use them, we have a right to use them as well.