‘We started writing about art because everything else was boring/overly academic/white nonsense////and male…we wanna write GOOD ~ have politix ~ n call out the general bullshit that stops a lot of us even wantin 2 go to galleries.’
This is how The White Pube introduce themselves on their website. The collaborative identity of Gabrielle de la Puente and Zarina Muhammad, TWP writes art criticism that is personal, provocative, accessible and refreshingly readable. Debut had the pleasure of sitting down with one half of TWP to discuss how they are changing what art criticism is, and could be, for a new generation of creatives.
What inspired you to start The White Pube?
ZM: We’ve actually got an origin story! Gab and I were on the same course at uni, and we had this really good relationship as studio-mates and as artists. I didn’t go to galleries, like I didn’t go to a single show in second year. One day in October 2015 Gab was like you should go to the Jon Rafman show that was on, and she gave me this whole list of reasons why I should go. So I went and everything she had said totally made sense and it was a really valuable review. On my way back to uni I picked up a copy of The Evening Standard and they had a review of the show and it was so funny because the review that Gab gave me, that verbal anecdotal review between friends, was so much more valuable than the review that I read. I was like ‘this is so irrelevant to my life’. We had this watershed moment where we realised that even though we were art students, art criticism held no value to us. We saw a gap that we decided to fill ourselves.
You are known for writing in a really accessible way, did you ever worry you wouldn’t get taken seriously?
Oh my God yeah! But I mean it was kind of on purpose. We chose the name TWP because it rejects any kind of professionality. In the beginning we didn’t take ourselves too seriously so we weren’t expecting anyone to take us seriously either. We ‘launched’ on like a Saturday morning in some fancy bakery at Frieze and that was it!
I feel like other people thought we were doing something interesting that we didn’t see ourselves. We’ve never been worried about being taken seriously because we never really took ourselves seriously. We definitely do now. Now we’re less concerned with other people taking us seriously because we know that our ‘authority’ doesn’t come from being objective or neutral. We haven’t studied art criticism so it makes sense for people to call us unqualified and we’re like ‘we know, and we’re doing so well!’
How do you approach the act of writing?
This is completely different for both of us. I think Gab takes a lot more time and consideration when writing a text. You can tell from the way she writes that it’s finely crafted and considered which is way different to the stuff I write! (laughs) I write from start to finish and it just pours out of me. Occasionally, I’ll go back and edit it but I never go into it knowing the shape and weight of what I’m going to say.
The only other reviewers both of us read are Hannah Gregory and Morgan Quaintance. I’m quite a bad reader! My new year’s resolution for 2018 is to read a new book each month.
White institutions erase our history and our contribution and the burden is on us to remember and reclaim that knowledge
You have built TWP mainly online through the website and social media – why was that so important to you?
Online was a choice we made because of pure practicality. The cost of publishing an actual, physical book is expensive. Plus, we like the pace of publishing online. Every week we have a new thought and it just comes straight out of our heads and our mouths on to the screen.
We didn’t get an Instagram until really late. I hate it! (laughs) I don’t have a natural sense of composing well thought out images. Gabs though, Gabs just does it and she doesn’t give a shit! We realised that most artists are on Instagram so for us it makes a load of sense but I think Twitter is a much more interesting place for an artist to be.
You’ve mentioned before that one of the disadvantages of having a substantial online presence is the constant visibility – is that something you still struggle with?
I can’t speak for Gab here but I definitely feel super visible at times. Just because the art world is so white and it really affects me. I’m quite sensitive in a corporeal way – like I feel it in my body – and the effects of institutional racism really affect me. All the instances we’ve had of people messaging us about things and even things that we see – supposedly progressive shows of women artists and there’s only one woman of colour – that really affects me. How am I meant to function in the same art world as these people?
Then there’s the ‘Call Out Culture’ – I hate that phrase! I mean most of us realise that being called out isn’t that deep, it’s only deep if you don’t change what you’re doing. Some of the call outs we’ve got have been good ones where people have been like ‘your website is not accessible’ – and we’ve absolutely made adjustments as best we can. But you also get a lot of call outs like ‘you talk about this too much and you just sound gobby and you’ve got a stick up your vagina etc.’ It feels gendered and racialized. I definitely know that Jonathan Jones doesn’t get some of the call outs we get.
We don’t write about art like it’s a normal thing
Do you feel a responsibility to put your voice/platform to a cause? Has that changed over time?
I was definitely angrier in my teens. I’ve simmered down! (laughs) Now I have the vocabulary to explain why things make me feel uncomfortable – I have the language. But there are still things that happen that are so sly and slight that I’ve only recently begun to figure out why certain things bother me. The best thing about being in a collaboration is that they have your back. Like we’ll be at an event and people will come up to Gab and address her but not me, and she’ll be like ‘that was fucking racist wasn’t it!’ It’s nice to have her there to feel like I’m not going crazy!
But I do feel the responsibility of giving other people the platform. We run a monthly residency on our website and try and make sure the majority of residencies are artists of colour, or artists from marginalised backgrounds. I do feel responsible in a way but it’s not like a burden of representation that a lot of people feel. White institutions erase our history and our contribution and the burden is on us to remember and reclaim that knowledge. That burden is on us, it shouldn’t be, but it is. White-washing history, erasing our past to make you feel like you’re constantly arriving, like you have no history here so you have to be thankful for what you get. You have to be like, ‘No.’ I’m not the first female, south Asian art critic. South Asian women are writing for art magazines everywhere and we have a presence in the art world. It’s about being aware of it and making sure you’re in contact with the right people.
One of the pieces that really struck me on your website was ‘Why I hate the White Cube’. You have an increasing physical presence with the work you do like workshops, but how do you feel about these spaces? Is it about reclaiming the space, or rethinking what those spaces can do?
Literally it’s just that they pay us money. We have to monetise what we do as TWP. But, we also did things like the Tate Exchange with Collective Creativity because we LOVE Raju Rage and Melanie from Iniva! But I do feel like I’m less enthralled by the idea of being in the institution as a woman of colour. The institution has way less to offer me. What am I getting? Exposure? I’ve got exposure. A platform? I’ve got a platform. It’s a nice place to be. It’s really powerful.
There is definitely an issue with galleries, art schools, museums and why they’re not places that people of colour want to be in. As an art student walking into an art gallery I didn’t feel comfortable – how mad is that! Museums don’t do enough. It’s not enough to put on a Chris Ofili show every summer or whatever. It’s great, but it’s just not enough.
You are based between Liverpool and London. Why was it important for you to work outside the London bubble?
When we started we were really keen to not treat London like it was the centre of the country. London is a centre but we’re missing things. We’re missing artist-led spaces and galleries that aren’t commercial. Liverpool also has gaps. It’s got big institutions – the Bluecoat, the Tate, the Walker – but then like two artist-led spaces. We’re nosy, we want to see what’s going on in other cities – like, I love Birmingham! That feels more bottom-heavy, but then how much they are actually engaging with their huge community of people of colour.
That was a very boring way of saying London is flawed and so is every other city! (laughs) I think the only solution to that is displacing and making London less and less the centre of the UK’s arts ecology.
On your website you discuss everything from mental health to the Kardashians, was writing around art a conscious choice or something that came from the criticism?
I guess a little bit of both. Writing about money and mental health is a knock-on effect from the art criticism because we write so subjectively. We don’t write about art like it’s a normal thing. We normalise the things that go on around the art.
I really like when we write about other things because it recognises that art is not the centre of our lives. It’s an interesting exercise in writing and thinking when you write about Love Island academically! All of these things are part of our cultural backdrop.
Favourite gallery in London?
Auto Italia. They just put on good quality shows. It would be Arcadia Missa but it’s too far away – I live in North London!
Favourite gallery outside of London?
Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art. Gabs is part of a residency there and they’re just amazing! They make a really conscious effort to engage with refugee communities and they call their visitors their constituents, like there’s a sense of accountability.
The best thing about TWP?
The friendship and conversation between me and Gab. We just gas each other up!
The worst thing about TWP?
The white people who feel entitled to give their opinion on the things that we do. I think they feel entitled to say certain things because we’re both women and quite young. It’s not criticism – which we can take and are open to – it’s the condescending tone.
If you weren’t doing this what would you be doing?
I’d have a gallery job of some kind but I think I’d be quite bored! I’d still make art but it wouldn’t be the same art that I make now which is definitely influenced by TWP. As a writer I’m sympathetic to artists because I make art, and as an artist I’m sympathetic to viewers because I write as a viewer.
Your proudest TWP moment?
The only time I’ve ever cried was after the first Zayn Malik Zindabad! It was so full and emotional. We couldn’t pay people and it was done on a shoestring budget and we played it through shit speakers and my mum donated the snacks! (laughs) Afterwards this really diverse audience that came out were talking about the work in the exact way we wanted them to talk about it.
Your dream art date?
I enjoy meeting people I’ve never met before and making friends! But maybe Morgan Quaintance. Or Imran Perretta. I’d like to go on an art date with Anish Kapoor. I like his philosophy and his approach to racial politics.
Your advice to other creatives who are looking to start their own DIY projects?
DIT – Do it together! It’s empowering to do it with someone else. It can be difficult for some people but the benefits of working collaboratively outweigh the negatives.
Get a part-time job that has nothing to do with art.
Try monetise your work as soon as possible – don’t work for free, or only do the right work for free.
Share your blacklist with people. In the era of Harvey Weinstein and other abusers that you find in the art world too, gossip and talking can be a valuable way of sharing knowledge and experiences.
I’m quite keen on not having a five year plan. We don’t have April figured out never mind the next five years. We take each month as it comes and we’re doing alright.
Words by Gurnesha Bola