By Susie Winters
At the center of the frame, a white-frosted cake sits like a full moon on a dark wood table. Suzanne Kite drops her palms to either side of the orb, her red fingernails glinting up to the camera. “This performance is about death,” Kite warns her viewers before she commences a live-stream performance from her home in California.
In Lakotan mourning traditions, cakes are decorated with edible photographs of the deceased and served at the end of sometimes days-long burial ceremonies. Kite doesn’t know the origin of funerary cakes, but judging by their absence in academic research on Lakotan mourning, she suspects they became popular sometime after 1990. With reverent awareness, the artist pays interest to this act, which exists in the middle ground between tradition and protocol.
Unlike Kite’s previous works, Aǧúyabskuyela (2020) merges the artist’s practice and personal life, which is uncomfortable terrain for Kite, as she “hate[s] art that is too close to life”. Perhaps at Kite’s expense, then the work—rich with poetry—is like the performance art equivalent to found objects. It is a set of actions that have long existed for Kite. I suppose it is not unusual that an artist would draw from their day-to-day routines and motions, but they are usually performed with distance and coolness, far from their original time. Kite’s performance, however, is markedly in context. Filmed mid-May during the COVID-19 lockdown, the artist surrenders to protocols as a singular-focused way through an unfolding catastrophe. Leaving nothing up to interpretation, the artist introduces the viewers to the significance of the cake, transitioning like a talk show host from one segment to the next—from monologue, to reading aloud, to interviewing her cousin whom she calls midway through. As she talks, she decorates. The first two cakes are for the extinct English wolf and the near-extinct roe deer. Kite peels the backing off of edible photographs and adheres them gingerly to the surface of the humble, round cakes.
The work is not enigmatic or withholding—it’s a performance with a built-in map explaining the motions as they occur. Further, these particular cakes are not art objects or props but are meant for mourning of soon-to-die family members and extinct creatures. In this way, Aǧúyabskuyela is a demonstration and offering of knowledge. I am grateful for Kite’s generosity here. More than context, Kite’s actions come with a strategy for facing death, which is more than normally asked from artists.
Decorating cakes with photographs of loved ones strikes me as a wholesome tribute to recently passed relatives, but it also makes me think hard about substrates. Cake is almost smug in its temporality. Despite the work involved in baking and decorating a cake, if it’s not eaten and disappeared quickly, it self-destructs. This accelerated organic disintegration reminds us of what we already know happens to photographs, printed or digital—they all decompose in the end. But these cakes, in addition to bearing temporal traces of loved ones, can nourish and comfort a living body, which is powerful, as the Lakota already know.
“Somebody’s going to get the person’s face,” Kite notes, but “I don’t think it has anything to do with some form of weird icing cannibalism.” I would agree with Kite that it’s definitely not cannibalism, but it’s not a metaphor either, because a photograph is a real body, or at least a real appendage, as long as we can trace the relay of reflected light and signals back to the moment a loved one stood in front of a camera. In other words, a photo is a portal to a moment, and now a moment can be eaten.
Even if you can’t buy into these metaphysics, photographs are compelling and conceptually amorphous, which makes them primed to serve as sacred icons if they should be used for that purpose. Kite’s cousin, Corey Stover, a scholar in Lakota Studies and performance guest, agrees that the cakes likely came about to replace some spiritual foods that were banned, along with other Indigenous people’s religious practices, by local and regional governments in the so-called United States until the late-twentieth century. Kite decorates a third cake to congratulate her cousin on completing his bachelor’s degree.
Cakes are customary parts of many types of Indigenous gatherings, but photographic funeral cakes are particular to Lakota traditions. It’s common to see photos of the dead at funerals but, the more I think about it, to eat those photos seems like a natural and beautiful gesture towards closure. The cunning Cake, facetious as Marie Antoinette, has eclipsed its own reputation for shallow, obligatory sweetness at weddings, birthdays, and retirement parties, and has come to take space as spiritual food. With icing decorations as tokens of affection and respect, the cake is an evanescing monument to lost loved ones.
That is not to say everyone should or could adopt funeral cakes. Indigenous communities have become experts in mourning, bearing disproportionate death for centuries as a result of colonization. And as Kite explains, the cakes are a small part of a rigorous and long-fought religious practice.
For those of us who have been lucky enough to live without a refined set of protocols for death, it’s time to start thinking about what we will do. Now that pervasive death isn’t as easily ignored, how will we mourn? How will we help others mourn when the worst may be certainly coming soon? How will we accept and make room for the bereaved whose suffering we are complacent in?
Feeling her way into a conclusion, Kite presents the final cakes in order, raising each one to the camera as if formally introducing them. A fourth cake has been left undecorated, reserved for deaths to come—she lingers with this one, letting the frosting fill the frame like a plain of drifted snow. The camera pulls in and out of focus, as if trying, like we are, to picture whose face we will see there next. The performance ends with an audio recording of the artist’s grandfather, urging us to consider our place and purpose on earth, while Kite cuts herself a piece of cake—the face of the English wolf—and eats it.
Aǧúyabskuyela was performed on May 14, 2020 as the final instalment of “Bodily Response”, a series of live-streamed performative actions for Mountain Standard Time Performative Art based in Calgary, AB.
Feature Image: Aǧúyabskuyela, 2020 by Suzanne Kite. Video still, Los Angeles, USA. Photo courtesy of the artist & Mountain Standard Time Performative Art.