- Curating and Performing Racism:Scenarios of Afrophobia in Contemporary Sweden1
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 eyes. There's little room for otherness here.—Makode Linde, quoted in Borjas (2016)
Det är inte vi afrosvenskar som inbillar oss om n-ordets politiska och emotionella sprängkraft …, det är en vederbörlig sanning som många av oss afrosvenskar konfronteras med var dag.—Mattias Järvi (2016a)
(It is not us Afro-Swedes who imagine the political and emotional explosiveness of the n-word …, it is a proper truth that many of us Afro-Swedes are confronted with every day.)2 [End Page 1]
On December 1, 2015, Sweden's largest morning paper, Dagens Nyheter, reported that a creative difference had erupted between Kulturhuset Stadsteatern (Stockholm House of Culture and City Theatre) in Stockholm and the Afro-Swedish visual and performance artist Makode Linde (born 1981) whose latest exhibition was scheduled to open on January 30, 2016. Linde insisted on calling the exhibition "Negerkungens återkomst," a title that literally translates as "The Return of the Negro King," but whose cultural connotation in contemporary Swedish is highly pejorative and is thus closer to the N-word in English.3 Benny Fredriksson (1959–2018),4 then managing director of Kulturhuset Stadsteatern, was concerned about the racist implications of this title, claiming:
I Kulturhuset Stadsteaterns verksamhet är det grundläggande att vi är en institution och en plats för alla stockholmare. Många av dessa stockholmare möter oss i en offentlighet utanför våra galleri- och utställningsytor—till exempel via annonser eller annan typ av marknadsföring. Om vi i de sammanhangen, som självklart är en annan kontext än våra gallerier, kommunicerar ordet "negerkungen", finns det också en betydande risk att Kulturhuset Stadsteatern som institution uppfattas legitimera ett rasistiskt uttryck.(quoted in Lenas 2015)
(For the activities of Kulturhuset Stadsteatern it is essential that we are an institution and a place for all Stockholmers. Many of these Stockholmers meet us in the public sphere outside our gallery and exhibition spaces—for example, through advertisements or other types [End Page 2] of marketing. If in these contexts, which of course are different from our galleries, we communicate the word "negerkung," there is also a significant risk that the House of Culture and City Theatre as institutions are perceived to legitimize the expression of racism.)
Fredriksson wrote these lines in an email to the artist that was, in turn, forwarded to the media. In his public response, Linde defended the title as "en integrerad del av verket" [an integral part of the work], criticized Fredriksson for showing no respect for "begrepp som konstnärlig frihet och integritet" [concepts like artistic freedom and integrity], and wondered: "Jag förstår inte varför jag, som icke-vit, som har blivit kallad 'neger' så många gånger, inte kan få appropriera det ordet" (quoted in Lenas 2015) [I don't understand why I, as a non-White person who has been called "neger" so many times, mustn't appropriate this word].
Following from both the controversy that Linde's exhibition initiated as well as his own questions concerning the performativity of language, this essay seeks to explore a number of intersecting themes that under-gird the later self-titled Makode Linde exhibition and the discursive maelstrom that ensued. As a way to parse these themes, conflicts, and debates, our analytical framework situates the exhibition-installation as a site of performance that was initiated through intersecting discursive, material, visual, and performative practices.
First, we proceed by outlining the various elements and strategies the artist brought to bear within the exhibition. To do so, we structure our detailed description and analysis of the exhibition into four distinct performance spaces, which we identify and label as scenarios, famously defined by performance scholar Diana Taylor as "culturally specific imaginaries—sets of possibilities, ways of conceiving conflict, crisis, or resolution" (2003, 13). According to Taylor, colonial...