The White Pube
For the latest instalment in my ongoing series of interviews I spoke to The White Pube, the collaborative efforts of Zarina Muhammad and Gabriella de la Puente. Publishing art reviews and emoji summaries every week to their thousands of followers on social media, they are unafraid to call out bullshit and elitism in the art world. Working between London and Liverpool and having recently been voted in the Dazed 100, The White Pube are giving voice to a new generation of art critics. You can support The White Pube by becoming one of their patrons, here.
You have both redefined art criticism and contributed greatly to the shift in honest and accessible writing. Why do you think The White Pube has been necessary? How did this come about?
Gabrielle: The White Pube came about whilst we were studying BA Fine Art at Central St Martins. We graduated in 2016. All the way through university we found that our artistic practices were quite aligned. We were always in conversation with each other and spent most days in the studio. We were part of a small group who were in the studios every day. We would bring enough food in to last all day. I felt there was a group of us who were interested in figuring out the art world and then figuring out how to stay in it once we left university. At the same time, we were both aware that we didn’t really enjoy going to exhibitions or reading anything about exhibitions or following up with the reading lists that the tutors gave us.
Zarina: If we did, it was this horribly painful thing attempting to help us understand theory. To this day I still don’t understand what the fuck Baudrillard was on about. Who the fuck has read all of Simulations? I really tried but it’s so fucking painful. It’s like pulling out my eyebrows. I wanted to die every time.
Gabrielle: Reading all that art shit is painful. It’s very boring. It’s similar to when I used to study languages and I’d get to a word in a sentence that I didn’t know and then I’d have to look up that word. Maybe that word wasn’t such a direct translation and it was part of the saying. Then I’d have to look at colloquialisms and different languages and idioms and only then you could move on to next word. I had the exact same experience when trying to read art, which I never expected.
Zarina: I couldn’t believe this was a thing. Not long ago I saw someone reading the Torah on the tube. On one of the pages there was a list of references explaining what it meant, like a dictionary, with glossary. That’s what reading theory is like, but without the glossary.
Gabrielle: Exactly. I think so many writers are selfish in not giving you any explanations for the references. Of course it’s going to be painful because you are made to feel like you don’t know enough. You’re not in this academic crowd to be able to keep up with it.
Zarina: I mean, as a person of colour, what does Greenberg mean to me? Is he speaking to my experiences? Whatever the fuck he was writing about, I don’t actually know. These weird questions about such abstract theory. Those are not the concerns I had when I was trying to make art. That wasn’t what I was grappling with. I was interesting in how my body historically has been represented in different ways, that’s what I was concerned with.
Gabrielle: We were both looking to music and pop culture, YouTube, reality TV and our own conversations with each other for the thoughts with which to develop. It wasn’t these art ‘references’.
Zarina: Whilst we were studying we were part of this circle of people who would come into the studio, make some art, have some tea, and watch First Dates over lunch.
Gabrielle: It’s all we would do. Then we’d watch Scream Queens together. We had this routine that we felt more comfortable with. Bringing academic theory into that didn’t make any sense. It came to a bit of a head when I told Zarina that maybe she should visit the Jon Rafman exhibition at the Zabludowicz, which was on at the time, as it might be quite useful for her practice.
Zarina: A friend-to-friend recommendation, who basically said, I know your practice, I think you’d like it for these reasons. It was a review, but it was the kind of review that mattered to me. I don’t particularly care about what Adrian Searle has to say. I didn’t care what he had to say about that exhibition particularly, but Gab’s review felt like a friend-to-friend review. So I visited the exhibition. It must have been a Thursday because that’s when the Evening Standard does their art reviews. Anyway, I came back with the Evening Standard after I’d been to this show. It just described what was in the room and gave it three stars. I was like, what does that mean? It felt like a much-focused moment where we realised how useless this broadsheet art journalism was in that context. The alternative (art theory) sucks as well. Art writing and writing about art is always at different ends of the spectrum. It’s either completely vacuous or it just describes exactly what’s in the room. It’s technically journalism that has its own purpose, like Time Out.
Gabrielle: You also find people like JJ Charlesworth, from Art Review, writing 1700 words about what’s in the room and then when it ends. The only difference is, he uses fancier words than they do in the Evening Standard. It’s a clever way to make it look like a review but it’s not actually saying anything.
Zarina: We realised there was nothing in between theory and arts journalism. Where’s the crossover, where I actually spend time reading this?
Gabrielle: We then decided to do it ourselves. We were very much artists coming into the third year of university. We were interested to see what would happen if we did it ourselves. If we had a website and we wrote things the same way as we speak. There was a bit of an accent to the language. It was probably a bit shorter to what other people were writing. Instead of star ratings we did emoji summaries because it would be funnier.
Zarina: I think it means more. No one understands what three stars means.
Gabrielle: I then asked Zarina, what we should call ourselves. It was Zarina who shouted, The White Pube. We immediately brought the domain name and the Twitter account and spent that week writing up the Jon Rafman show. Zarina went to three shows?
Zarina: I went to a Bill Viola show and I have no idea why. When I read the first reviews back, it makes me want to die. As a writer I’ve moved miles away from that. We didn’t know what we were doing. We just knew that we wanted to write the same way we would speak to each other. We weren’t doing anything very consciously. It took a few months for us to realise what was happening and what our voices were as writers.
How do you deal with people who say or believe they are the authorities, and will give you unwanted feedback?
Gabrielle: I have an example; we are just about to finish a residency with Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art. I was invited to an arts council collection curator’s day. I ended up writing a piece about how I think there should be local advisory boards attached to each gallery, an artist that’s based in that institution. I wrote a lot. I wrote about Assemble and the Turner Prize and all these different things. Alistair Hudson, the Director at the time, who is now in Manchester, sent me back an annotated version of what I’d written. He was quoting Kant in parts. I just replied to him saying, you missed the point of me even being in residence. I don’t know who Kant is and I don’t want to know. He apologised. If anyone tries to tell me who Kant is, I’m going to put my fingers in my ears.
Zarina: I think he wrote something about Cyborgs.
Gabrielle: Don’t tell me. I’ve basically made the decision to stop reading. The amount of stuff I read when I was trying to get into university. I remember, I had an interview for Oxford and I had been reading the Story of Art by E.H Gombrich because I was like, this is a shortcut to knowing everything. The whole history of the world in one big book. I didn’t even finish it. There’s no time. They were talking about Descartes so much that in the interview, at one point I mentioned Des-carts because I didn’t know how to say his name and they just stared back at me. It’s like fuck, that’s me in a nutshell.
Zarina: Especially in London there’s so much going on. I do feel a sense of FOMO saying no to all my friends. But I don’t want to be that person where art consumes my life. I need a cut-off point. I have a family. Do you know what I mean? My cousins do not care. They just want to bang gym, go shisha and drive down Edgeware road in their Golf. Their lives are so completely different to mine. It’s a nice anchor to remember that there are other people just like us.
Gabrielle: If all we did was that weird art world hustle, if I went to my Nans I wouldn’t be able to open my mouth. I wouldn’t have anything to say to anyone.
Zarina: If I didn’t watch Love Island I wouldn’t be able to interact with my mum. I feel like, what is the point of the art world being so insular with these insular references. How are we meant to expect people to come into galleries and understand what’s going on?
I find your writing accessible because there is a certain level of humour and honesty in your reviews especially when highlighting quite important and political topics. Does humour provide a certain autonomy and freedom within your work?
Zarina: I think we’re quite funny people. We just don’t take art too seriously.
Gabrielle: I’m convinced that we’re just hilarious people. A part of me is about consciously having other things going on in my life and having conversations that aren’t just about art. Whilst at Spike Island the other month, Erica Scourti asked me, how do you not let it all go to your head? I said that it’s literally coming from a family that is so grounded. It’s very literal. I feel I’m really noticing this more and more. I feel that working class people seem a little bit more literal. These conversations of theory and all this shit don’t actually exist in real life, it’s doesn’t affect you in the same way or doesn’t occupy your mind. The language is different; what you do, how you spend the hours of your day, everything feels more tangible. I’m in Liverpool most of the week. I’m speaking to my family and going to visit my Nan and my Grandad. I can’t float away or let it all go to my head. It’s also a bit of the going back and forth that makes the humour. It really puts into perspective how stupid everything can be and how self-indulgent these invisible ideas of the art world really are.
Zarina: I don’t think neither of our families particularly care about art.
Gabrielle: My mum hates art galleries.
Zarina: The one exhibition that my sister liked was Benedict Drew at The Whitechapel Gallery. I remember her saying she liked it because things make noises. I was like, that’s valid. I’ll try and take my mum to shows and she’ll be like, oh I don’t like that, what the fuck is that. That’s so shit. Gabs has written reviews in the past with her mum and people have been really cross. They were like; you didn’t take the time to write this properly. We basically commissioned that review and it was so shit. I’m always like, yes, it was. My mum didn’t get it. Why am I meant to pretend?
As a continuation of my earlier question, how do you manage the backlash from those that are in opposition with your approach to art criticism? I listened to your podcast In Defence of Criticism, and how you started to hear words such as bully, aggressive or bitchy. This for me is something that has come up quite a bit in my interviews and is obviously an ongoing discussion amongst my friends. How do you navigate these structures in the art world?
Gabrielle: I’ve actually just pulled up some screenshots from my phone after I went to the John Moores University degree show.
Zarina: That had a very bad and pretty awful reaction.
Gabrielle: Last year we started to go round degrees shows. We’d walk around and make Instagram stories – completely live reviews. It would be the sort of stuff that I would say to Zarina if she was next to me or to a friend or just what’s on my mind at the time, always coming again from this completely subjective place that if something is shit, its shit. If something excites me, oh my God that’s excites me.
Zarina: Also the way you go around a degree show is very different to the modes that you go around a gallery because it’s so crammed in. It’s like those antique shops where they haven’t even bothered to tidy up since the 1800s. It feels like a bookshop in that sense, so I really don’t understand why we received this kind of reaction.
Gabrielle: Unfortunately I’d gone in feeling quite excited to find things that I liked because I knew that there were a few good eggs on that course. I didn’t see anything really. I had missed a few performances unfortunately. I can’t categorically decide that I hated the whole thing.
Zarina: We’ve had this conversation before with the Director of JMU and with other people on the course; people that we know. I want to know why some people on that course are just not looking outwards. They’re making the same stuff they made at GCSE.
Gabrielle: How thoughtful are these pieces? How well-done is it? Where is the standard of quality art making? Have you made your own canvas? If not, why? There’s no consideration. It’s GCSE. The logic behind most of these pieces is GCSE, which is a little bit embarrassing. I am so invested in Liverpool and wanting it to be as good as it is, but when it’s bad, I’m not going to lie. I’m not there to be a journalist. I’m a critic.
Zarina: It’s this idea that once you invest in something, you should be wholly positive. You need to give us affirmations, and tell us we’re doing well. Let’s all believe that this is going really great. That’s how you make it great. No, that’s obviously not. We achieve greatness by assessing what you’re doing and being honest with yourself and actually doing it rather than all secretly lying to each other. They’ve gone through three years of art education and no one said to them why are you doing that? Why do I care about this A1, charcoal drawing of your Nan? I don’t know her. I don’t care.
Gabrielle: I basically published it and quite quickly we got screenshots of the course’s shared Facebook message group. It says, “I’m going to be the first person to say it, but The White Pube are pieces of white, fat, shit that I already thought they were. Can they even produce art or just chat shit about it?” Then there was another post, which I thought was a little bit weird, and I reported it. I think it got taken down. They had screenshotted my face and put it on an Instagram post, not a story. Then the caption was, “I wouldn’t follow The White Pube or accounts who claim to be funny art critics when in fact they’re just slagging an artist off without educating themselves. They are purely trolls who go around scathing artwork for the fun of it. The first thing this girl did was look at my paintings and compare them to childish work.” Because I had said, leave your poster paints in year one. It continues, “Little did she know, my work aims to demonstrate the inside of Alzheimer’s cells in an attempt to raise awareness towards the disease as my granddad is terminally ill with it. This shows the ignorance towards it. I work damn hard at what I do. Me and everyone part of the show knows that there will be mixed reviews. No one has to like my work. No one has to agree with it. But this is an example of someone who is childish trying to get views or some sort of attention. Thanks everyone who understands my artwork including my tutors, friends and family, because not everyone is as ignorant as these trolls are.” Me saying that the art looks childish is not me skitting Alzheimer’s. Are you messed up, how did you get that from what I was saying?
Zarina: The critics have to educate themselves? We are expected to do all of this required reading. If that’s what the critic required, why is that any different from what you are asking from a viewer? You want complicity from your audience, and you’re just not going to get it. This is something that I think artists of colour and artists from marginalised backgrounds really, really quite deeply understand.
There is this interesting area where lots of artists of colour are doing this thing where they’re playing with the gaze that hits them. That’s become the thing that they deal with. I think that artists like Evan Ifekoya do it quite well; meeting the gaze that hits them without making it a thing. It is a skill. It’s something that you have to take in consideration. It’s something that white artists, perhaps, who have never had their identity called into question, the quality of their artwork called into question, have never dealt with. It’s bizarre.
Gabrielle: You can tell which of the people that have gone on to this course and have not engaged in any exhibitions during that time or have not walked around a gallery where you realise that meaning is not just given to you. It doesn’t have to be. It can just be about your experience of a work and your recognition that neon poster paints are quite childish, in my opinion. I haven’t seen them used by anyone over the age of seven.
Then I received a message at 2:29am on my personal Facebook, from someone I don’t even have on Facebook.
Zarina: After the after-party, they obviously went out and thought, I’m going to fucking address this.
Gabrielle: It says, “For a professional art critic to come with the imperative to slate the JMU Degree Show is poor form.” FYI, I didn’t come with the intent. “I’ve genuinely lost a lot of respect for The White Pube after tonight by not reading into the work or acknowledging the context that each student imagined. Not giving the work a second before videoing a review. I would have respected your opinion if it was constructive and not laughed at.” That doesn’t mean anything to me.”There was no appreciation for the overall show. You just selected to show the works you deemed shit, which gave a bad reputation for Liverpool Art.” Are you messing? Oh, Jesus Christ. “Your comments have made our degree show look shit, when there’s a hell of a lot of hardworking artists who are being ignored.”
To be honest I feel like none of the comments that we received were very smart. It was a certain calibre of students who were trying to engage with the criticism. It wasn’t going anywhere.
Zarina: I did the same thing going around the RCA. Art students from Loughborough, Lancaster, they are DM’ing us saying, please come and roast us. I would do anything for you to roast us. It’s so bizarre.
Gabrielle: Some of the other messages from the JMU students reached the level of attack. I have been a little bit, honestly, worried about walking around Liverpool in a way that I’ve never been before, where I’m waiting for someone to come up and shout at me, which is so weird.
Zarina: We also have this constant and rotating list of white men in our DMs that will message us saying things like, I don’t think you considered this when you said this actually, and it seems really weird that you did that when actually you should have done this. It’s coming from this very specific place of like, if I were you, I wouldn’t do that. We don’t know how to deal with that or navigate that quite yet because a lot of these men are patrons of The White Pube. They think they have this kind of entitlement to both our time and being heard out, for us to value their opinion.
Gabrielle: It’s getting to a point where we’re getting so many messages every day, it’s really hard to handle. When we first got an email address, we’d get like three emails a week. Now, it’s like ten a day. On the 23rd of May, we had so many emails. I’ve tried to screenshot it to send you but it was past the width of the page, and all in one day. It’s getting to a point now where we’re having to start to choose what we reply to, which I don’t want to have to do. I don’t want to be that person, but I’ve already got another job, and that is producing just as many messages to reply to.
Zarina: Being paid for the admin of one job is fine but we’re not being paid for The White Pube.
Gabrielle: When we get a message from a man who says, I think you need to stop talking about this thing now, or you need to do this now. Or they will say, I don’t agree with that, so I think you should reconsider, or this week’s review I thought, was a real departure in what you normally write. We’re like, what? Who are you?
Zarina: But it’s these people, they end up in our mentions on Twitter, or they have some interaction with us maybe once a month. They think we’re their mates. We’ve never met them.
Gabrielle: We’re so protective of the entire thing because we’ve kept it just the two of us. The things we want to do with The White Pube are between the two of us. We will listen to what is being said because obviously we’re critics but we also know, as critics, that we’re not obliged to follow every criticism we receive. If we had listened to what these messages were saying we would have stopped a long time ago.
Zarina: I think I became quite aware of this being a problem in November last year. There was this clusterfuck of issues taking place just before we took December off, I was really glad for that holiday, it fixed me. I feel like in a certain way, we’re very, very visible. It’s a specific kind of visibility because we are quite loud and we are open for discourse. We’re very, very contactable. That’s all fine and that’s all absolutely good, but it’s got to a stage where it’s become even more heightened than it was in November last year. We don’t necessarily have an answer of how to negotiate this, because I don’t know how to tell these people, yes, we want to talk to you, but you’re not entitled to our time and we’re not obliged to listen to you. I think it just depends. I think there are certain people who come from this specific identity whose opinions I’m willing to listen to, but I don’t particularly care about white men, you know what I mean?
Gabrielle: Someone said to us recently, which is now my new favourite thing, the reason they find The White Pube interesting is because we’re doing something similar to Eminem. By which they meant, Eminem got in front of everything that people might try and embarrass him with by basically saying it all. He created all these different things about his life where he’s like; you can’t send me a diss track because I have written so many diss tracks about myself and about my mom. It’s not that I’ve got nothing to lose, but Eminem, in a way, has made himself quite invincible by doing that.
With The White Pube, because of our subjective position as critics, the way we write with embodied criticism and the things we share about our lives, there is a level between art and life that we subscribe to, everyone knows everything. We’ve got nothing to hide, like our mental health, everything is on our website. Also, we know our style. We know that we’re not going to write as very clever people because we don’t want to be. You can’t embarrass us. If you try then you’ve missed the whole point. We write against that and we write in opposition to it all. If you message to say that we’re white, fat, cunts or shit or whatever it was, I can’t remember. It’s fine. It is rude, but also, something about that is rolling off me at the moment. We got a message from JJ Charlesworth on Twitter, even though we muted him, but for some reason a tweet was posted to our account. We don’t know why. What he said, again, rolled off me, because I know now what we do, so well.
Zarina: Something that rolls off me is, not that it bothered me, I just wanted to insult him. It didn’t bother me that he said this because I don’t care what he thinks. If he’s going to call us narcissists then he’s going to call us narcissists.
Thank God you’ve got each other.
Zarina: We say that all the time. You know those trees on the side of the road when they’re first planted and they’re a bit weedy. You belt them to a stick. That’s what we’re like to each other, just like a nice, gentle support system.
Gabrielle: When I’m getting messages at three o’clock in the morning, before I even reply I’m like, Zarina!!!
Zarina: As soon as I wake up, I’m going to be like, that’s fucking mental. It’s good, we’re very here for each other and each other’s struggles. When I need a time off to take care of mental health business, I know that Gab’s holding down the fort. It’s very good.
Just to go back, JJ said, “if only your criticism was subjective.” We tweeted something saying, The White Pube’s art criticism is openly and pointedly subjective. All the theory bros are trying to tell me by doing so by bringing on the collapse of theory, politics and basically the world. Then JJ says, “if only your criticism was subjective, narcissism isn’t subjective criticism. 1000 words talking about yourself, 700 words talking about the art. It’s the lack of attention to the work which is your biggest problem, but it won’t collapse anything.” Then a smiley face.
Gabrielle: We write texts, we like to make sure the reader knows where we’re coming from, which is why we have to include ourselves in it. Then they’ll understand why we think what we think. That’s the structure of these reviews.
Zarina: I always take things out on art. Every time I’ve written a bad review, not every time, but like sometimes I’ve written bad reviews when I’m just not having a good day. It’s good to declare, I’m having a shit time, which is why I found this art grating. It’s nothing to do with that.
Gabrielle: It’s just wrong though. I think that tweet is wrong.
Zarina: Yes. I don’t see any point in responding to it. There’s no point in responding to it intelligently.
Gabrielle: I’m really sad that Twitter showed it to us. We don’t understand. We checked and it still says we muted them. I don’t know why.
Zarina: I wonder if he paid for us to see it.
Gabrielle: Men will generally say to us, this is what I think you should do. Then women will say, I’m quite disappointed in what you’ve done this time. Always. We don’t really get women telling us what to do.
Zarina: A girl who was in a course with us when #KFCgate happened, she commented on the post saying, “I’m so disappointed in you girls. I thought you were better.” Then she deleted it. We couldn’t even take a screenshot.
There is this idea that we should be grateful for our visibility or the fact that our opinion or other people think our opinion carries weight, to us, it doesn’t.
Gabrielle: We’re doing exactly what we did when we had 400 followers. We want to keep doing it. I mean, it does look a little bit different now because there’s so many followers. I keep thinking if I was an outsider and I was a follower, I would naturally take what this person is saying as an authoritative stance. I’m trying to figure out how we neutralise that a little bit and help people understand but still continue to say what we want. If we’ve said something in a heavy-handed way, it was on purpose. But I don’t know what the answer is to that. That’s what I’m thinking about at the moment.
I’m interested in exploring the role of the female influencer, and for iheartwomen to act as a resource of women who are role models, particular focusing on the art sector. You are quite a force and voice in the arts; do you feel a level of responsibility there, especially with your ever-growing readership and follower base?
Zarina: Obviously we do Art Dates, which is a really nice way to meet the people you like and you care about. You appreciate what they’re doing. Some of these people are not our followers anymore. They’re our mates. I don’t know. I’m quite concerned about us being very, very visible and me being a brown person on a website like Dazed 100. I think there is a conversation around the diaspora of what art looks like. There are a lot of people making art that is of questionable quality that perhaps falls more happily under the umbrella of illustration. I’m very wary of that relationship that I potentially have to those artists. Obviously if these artists want to have a studio visit, then shout me.
Gabrielle: You’re a little bit better about that than I am. You’ve got more time for it. Basically the influencer role for us is critical support. I feel, to be honest, if I’ve written a review and I’ve edited it all week and published it and it’s still not enough for you to understand, maybe take it on or don’t, it’s up to you. Then to be honest, that’s probably the end of it. But sometimes things that Zarina has written, you’ll follow it through a bit. If the person messages, you’ll spend hours speaking to them or you’ll offer to meet up with them and talk about it.
Zarina: This is not me being nice. It’s obviously racialised. People are less comfortable seeing authority coming from me. It does happen a little bit. Sometimes we’ve been in situations where we’ve been talking to people and they’ve been directing questions only at Gab’s or only making eye contact with Gab’s. Afterwards you’ve been like, that was racist and uncomfortable wasn’t it? I have to do that labour of explaining myself as otherwise a white artist that’s made a racist piece of work will just dismiss what I’ve said. They won’t believe it. It will take another white person to tell them.
I’m more willing to give my time to artists of colour. I’m quite interested in talking about what’s radical in art now. There’s artists like Evan Ifekoya, Raju Rage, Jacob Joyce, and sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, artists of colour doing amazing things, making shit that is exciting and is dealing with the body and all these other things that haven’t really been addressed ever before, in the way that they’re addressing it now. I think I’m quite interested in giving them critical feedback.
I spoke to an artist recently who talked about how they feel art is no longer revolutionary; how artists used to be the first to respond and highlight what was wrong with the world. From your perspective, do you think this type of art making still exists?
Zarina: Hal Foster, I think, and this is the only art theorist I can quote, said, to be an artist that is radical, you have to be standing outside of society. The radicality comes from a place of alterity. Is that what he said? If not, then that’s me. It’s true. We had this conversation in a forum back at uni, where I remember it being a vaguely uncomfortable situation. Clooney Reid, our tutor in third year, she said, what art do you think is radical? What is radical in the art world? I went, nothing. White men cannot be radical. If you want to talk about radicality, let’s talk about Nas and his album Illmatic, look at what Kendrick is doing. Maybe not Childish and This is America, but Young Thug is radical. Young Thug is fucking radical. I maintain this. No, My Name is Jeffrey, it was cutting edge. White men cannot be radical.
Do you believe the Internet, social media and online criticism has helped to bring people together and embrace issues such as intersectionality?
Zarina: I’m quite wary saying the Internet is this utopian dream where marginalised bodies can be safe in that space. It has the same kind of isms that society houses like racist, sexist or ablest, transphobic, homophobic, all of those. I’m a big fan of the filter bubble and how certain algorithms work on twitter, it’s quite good. At certain times, I just want to have a conversation outside the earshot of whiteness, I don’t want complete affirmation, but I want to have a conversation where I don’t have to explain everything first. I just want to have the conversation. I think that places like twitter are really, really good for that. You’re able to facilitate conversations that perhaps wouldn’t happen in real life. Especially with people from marginalised backgrounds, like all marginalised identities. I think it is the closest to a safe space, aside from the organic abstract idea of community.
Gabrielle: In a way that YouTube isn’t because so many LGBT videos are being demonetised. There’s been a massive, almost withdrawal of trans YouTube creators because they can’t make money from original videos anymore. It’s really sad.
Zarina: In December last year I decided to not hang out with any white people. It’s good to have a little detox and be around the people you feel comfortable with. Not having to explain why you feel a certain way.
As part of my interview series, I tend to ask everyone, do you think there has been a shift in the awareness of cultural diversity and representation of women, especially in the art world over the last decade? And, if this is something you have thought about, is there anything else that needs, or could be done? The White Pube, is a great example of supporting marginalised artists, and addressing these particular issues head-on.
Gabrielle: It was your tweet the other day we shouldn’t get stuck on representation. It needs to be like who’s in power? Who’s the Director? What do they look like?
Zarina: I’m generally really annoyed at the moment. Obviously Tate does that one big artists of colour show, or the big queer show at Tate Britain. However, it’s only this annual event, which centres on ticking diversity boxes. They have a black person to show in the gallery, just one, normally a man of colour. Then we’ve had all these other black creatives, people of colour creatives doing a public program. They are underpaid, if paid at all. That’s inclusion for them. I’ve been asked twice to be involved in Tate Lates. I’ve always ask, what’s the budget? They’ve got nothing. No one is being paid. Not only are the organisers doing free labour, but they have to ask their mates, people they respect, people they want to work with, to work for them for free. It’s not like the Tate doesn’t have any money. They definitely paid Mark Leckey, I doubt he would’ve done it if he wasn’t being paid, which is fair play, I don’t think any of us should. It’s ridiculous. There is definitely some sort of strategy to get people in the door that from these marginalised backgrounds. They are getting queer, women of colour, people of colour; they are getting people who actually probably do need funding and payment more than Mark Leckey probably does, I imagine. God bless him and his earring.
These people that are being brought in to the Tate, they expect them to work for free as they are being given the exposure. Tate believes they are giving people a leg up. Be grateful. When really they are the ones reaping the social benefit. They are going back to their funder and being like, look how diverse our program is. Look at all these exotic names. That really bothers me.
I am interested in a representation that is sincere. I want stakes in an institution. I want equity and I think that comes through having people of colour, queer people and disabled people and all these other people on the spectrum of under-representation. We need to give them positions of power in galleries. You need people in power and behind the scenes, like the all-white press team at Barbican. This was really obvious during the Basquiat show. I think an all-white majority curatorial staff also curated it. I say this because there was an issue with some of the public program. They showed a documentary that the BBC had made. Some young black girls came to see the show. The saw the issues straight away, that this show had whitewashed him. You’ve just skimmed over the fact that he was a Black Panther, a black radical. Where is that? To be honest, fair question. I think if it had come from anyone else, they wouldn’t have reacted in the way they did. They said, these girls were very aggressive. Basically, it doesn’t matter who’s in the galleries, it’s who’s putting things in those galleries, who’s telling people what’s on in the gallery, that’s the problem.
It was Naomi Campbell who said, there’s only ever one black model at fashion week in London. They book you in and it creates this adversarial atmosphere like, there can only be one black model. What the fuck? Imagine if you had three black models walking down a catwalk? Oh my God. Imagine. This is the position the art-world is taking at the moment.
Gabrielle: I wanted the cultural case of diversity to change that. When I first saw the name from the Arts Council, I almost thought it would change the way people think and work.
Zarina: Sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, I think that’s a really good model, which I was part of in 2014. The Tate Collective, maybe it’s a bit more relaxed but surely they should be adhering to a similar model. Sorryyoufeeluncomfortable actually does care about getting people from marginalised, hard-to-reach backgrounds through the door and empowering them, to stay within the art world and have autonomy within it. Almost all of us that we’re in Sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, whether we are still part of the collective or not, are still in the art world. I know other people who have also gone to do other things but we’re all still in the art world because we have been through an experience. Teresa Cisneros made sure that we were privy to conversations within those spaces. Teresa made sure we were at that table, having a voice. It was amazing, but it really shouldn’t be amazing. It shouldn’t be radical but she fought for us to have stakes in the institution, for us to be paid. She networked us. I remember going round to openings at Iniva, she introduced me to Morgan Quaintance. She introduced me to Anjalika Sagar from The Otolith Group. All these amazing people, I was 19, I didn’t know what was going on but that’s the way to do a youth program. That’s the way to do social outreach.
Gabrielle: In a way it does feel similar to being a critic in residence at MIMA because we’ve been able to have a voice and been heard. We’ve had the invitation to make criticism institutionally.
Zarina: So many of these things come down to intention. I really do question, institutions, like Tate, do they really care? They are a massive institution, there’s so much public funding. It is to degree everyone’s institution. We all should feel like we have stakes in the institution. Tate has the potential to do something actually worthwhile.
I agree, organisations have a responsibility to develop an outward-looking dialogue.
Zarina: It should definitely be something like that. I’m thinking about Arcadia Missa. I don’t know how they benefit from it. As a commercial gallery they still engage in a dialogue. I think every gallery that gets public funding should probably have a critic in residence position. I think it would help.
– Laura Hensser, 2018