A Festival of Gratitude

Curator's Statement: Nato Thompson

“Festival of Gratitude” presents a series of birthday cakes for world rulers actively engaged in a narcissistic expansion of their will—which, predictably, comes at the expense of democracy in most instances. They are confections for strongmen (and women) enraptured with their own power whose shadows loom large over headlines, lives, and the everyday minutia of the global politic. Why celebrate these tyrants?

The 21st century has ushered in a renewed age of the autocrat. The globalism and neoliberalism that shaped the ‘90s and the aughts has given way to national leader as mobster boss, crime lord, grifter. Sparking the anger of the working class, deploying racial epithets and harkening to myths of cultural nationalism, these leaders, when considered in aggregate, represent a trend more than a singular diabolical impulse.

For artist Walid Raad, the project takes its cue from an early memory of Beirut. As an aspiring teenaged photographer, he frequently snapped birthday cakes at his favorite bakery. As he documented cake after sumptuous cake, he realized that the names inscribed in viscous icing were as likely to be those of the military, political, and other thuggish leaders who were in the midst of laying waste to the city as part of the ongoing wars, as they were to be of his friends from school, his cousins or neighbors. He began to fantasize about the cakes going out to warlords as poisoned.

The image of a dictator with their birthday cake says much about these attention-hungry leaders. We can easily imagine that these hoarders of power love their cakes baroque and gigantic. They demand decorative twists and turns. And of course, they must have a party every year, even after they’re gone. The cutting of the cake reminds us of childhood birthday parties, or ostentatious adult ceremonies, both of which align with the psychic needs of these larger-than-life personalities.

These works are most certainly dark and cynical (in the sense of sneering fault-finder). Cakes for Lukashenko, Mubarak, Thatcher, Reagan, Mugabe, and Putin? The list is long, and one irony is that the cakes land differently depending on your political orientation; Many on the left still adore Chavez and Arafat just as some on the right still revere Reagan, Thatcher and Netanyahu.

In addition to these model confections, Raad offers individual slices, either “poisoned” or “blessed.” More than the intact emblems of the insatiable appetites of the ruler, slices provide a chance for those at the party to share in the moment—for better or worse. They are distributed, much like the scene in Godfather II where Hymon Roth hands out slices of birthday cake in Havana to the gathered captains, all the while describing how the mob’s holdings will be carved up after his reign. Or, the selling of slices are like the divvying up of the imaginary “King Cake” of the art market’s never-ending Mardis Gras.

The greatest irony of Festival of Gratitude lies deep inside the cake. Each one utilizes a Non-Fungible Token, or NFT, that contractually establishes a specific circulation of money with each sale.  For the Putin cake, 100% of proceeds go to Ukraine artists and activists. For all other cakes and projects, 60% of proceeds go to an arts-based non-profit organization chosen by the artist. In this way, a project that foregrounds the grandiosity and excesses of despots also helps build a different kind of art world that literally pays every time a work is sold and re-sold, and in this case, supports arts organizations in need at a higher rate than individual artists. Not to sugarcoat it, the NFT-as-philanthropy thumbs its nose at autocracies in all their forms.

And for that, we’re willing to eat cake.