by Jessie Florence Jones
"We’re just very aware that outside of that formal publication structure there’s very little support for writers. And the pandemic has made that really really obvious"
Remember when interviews used to start with that lengthy rumination on the hairstyle, beverage choice and clothing of the interviewee? They would be fashionably late, smooth and cool, carrying a coffee from somewhere else, immediately deposited for another. Or they would be frantic, crashing into the restaurant like a miniature hurricane with gentler features.
Well, there'll be none of that here. Beyond just the fact that it's annoyingly familiar, it is something that has gradually, begun to border on extinction. At least right now in the p***demic, in an increasingly digital landscape especially, the idea of travelling to meet someone in person feels like something rare to the point of vintage.
Though convenient for everyone involved, it still would have been a delight to meet Zarina Muhammad in person. One half of the guerrilla critic duo The White Pube, Zarina defines the project as: “an art criticism platform. Kind of our collaborative identity but, we write about art, games, and sometimes food and it takes place on the website, Instagram, and Twitter”.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Zarina about the art world, its inequalities, and The White Pube's billboards and writer’s grant. Gabrielle De La Puente, Zarina's partner and best friend, was unable to attend the interview unfortunately, but her presence was certainly felt in the answers that Zarina gave. 'We' overwhelmed 'I' when talking about everything The White Pube do. It is definitely their “collective identity”. This is truly a partnership and a non-hierarchical effort; something that, as our conversation reveals, can be hard to find in the creative industry.
Gabrielle and Zarina met in art school in Central Saint Martins in London. I asked whether the girls still had their own practices. This was met with a longer pause than I would have anticipated, Zarina pondering the question before landing on: “it’s a sticky one!”
For her and Gabrielle, The White Pube is a part time enterprise alongside other projects and part time jobs. Zarina tells me that she doesn’t “work in the art world at all. I just have a boring office job”, before brightening as she talks about Gabrielle. It’s moments like these where the depth of that partnership, and the equality with which The White Pube works, really shines through. She tells me that Gabrielle, “between those two things, writing criticism and being an actual curator [at Output Gallery in Liverpool], she’s quite creatively fulfilled without actually having to make art.”
This leads to something broader that’s encouraging and refreshing about these two women writing criticism: they’re totally comfortable doing exactly what they’re doing. I was inspired talking to her, realising that these were women content to discuss the work of others, and highlight the behind-the-scenes red flags that perhaps lead to that glory, that award, that huge financial success.
In a lot of ways this reflects something about the left generally: we are often tasked with the burden of solving the problems we illuminate. We’re often asked to prove on the spot, when challenged, how we could possibly do things better than the neoliberal consumer capitalist model we’ve been provided with. But sometimes it’s enough to just point out the issues; it’s our job, like Zarina and Gabrielle, to just say “this isn’t right.”
However, The White Pube does not solely task itself with pointing out the bad in the art world. It also celebrates the wonderful artwork out there. Part of the reason Zarina says she doesn’t make films anymore, (beyond asking: “who’s got the fucking time for that?!”) is her humble, simple admittance that she is “just really aware that there’s some really good work in the world”.
We got into exactly what it was that her and Gabrielle were trying to do. Increasingly, as The White Pube has grown, it has become more concerned with illuminating behind-the-scenes inequalities. The darker corners of the art world as industry, of art as commodity, that the average cultural consumer just doesn’t get to see: at least not as readily as the art itself.
If art itself, as a consumable experience, is persistently classed and blocked off to those of lower economic backgrounds, then the structures behind it are even more opaque.
Zarina highlighted what we can sometimes forget: “art, and it sounds trite, but [...] the art object is a commodity that is to be bought, and sold, at inflated prices on a market. And people have talked about, I guess the critical and theoretical implications of that: art as cryptocurrency right?” This was made abundantly clear in the midst of the pandemic when Tate workers were losing their jobs in droves and institutions chose the pieces of art, the commodities and their cultural capital, over their liquid worth that could have saved countless workers their jobs. The precariousness of gallery staff has been, more than once, a direct consequence of a refusal to sell works. Hoarding artworks becomes hoarding wealth when put in such stark terms. And this is something that Zarina and Gabrielle have consistently tackled in their criticism, especially with their new billboards around London and Liverpool.
The billboards include calls for transparency and equality ranging from: “dear museums, give back all the stolen objects”, “the art world should not replicate the capitalist structures of other industries and instead should set a better example with a horizontal approach to decision-making and pay”, and, my personal favourite: “people across the creative industries need to declare if they have rich parents who helped them get where they are today”.
The latter request for transparency is not something the girls think will change the art world overnight. These are not magic incantations which, when heard by the gatekeepers of the art world, will lead to a fully diverse, open art world. But it’s definitely a start. It’s something that, at the very least, highlights just how far we’ve got to go in the creative arts when things this seemingly obvious are still not being met.
Zarina used the example of North West and Kim’s showcasing of her oil painting efforts on Instagram. When discussing the legitimacy of these efforts - whether they were “really” North West, which seems to be the focus of the comments - Zarina states that “of course a kid that has access to that actual wealth is able to do something. Of course! That’s what makes those early experiences of success or aptitude possible. You’re just enabled.”
This highlights one of the more nebulous sides of privilege that is harder to quantify: the material conditions we exist in and have access to count, even at age 7. For Zarina, this is “why you need to declare it. Because you’ve had legs up, right?”
Art as a social sector that so heavily relies on networking is, like so many other industries if you’re working class or BAME, an uphill struggle. Before you attempt to establish yourself, you have to get into the room in the first place. Zarina illuminates how “it relies on you being middle class for so many different ends. Your ability to stick it out for several years without a claim, or any kind of encouragement, or significant payment. It’s just like an endurance test.” This, paired with what she calls “soft capital”, the placement “on the inside, being able to speak that specific language”, gives the already moneyed class a “cultural free pass of: we speak the same language anyway.”
One of my favourite parts of the interview is the cameo appearance of her unnamed favourite cousin who works in Screwfix. He, for Zarina, is her “yardstick [...] About the nonsense that goes in galleries: would my cousin care about this?” The core of this is one of the many rabbit holes opened up by our conversation: where does art’s capacity for community building, and activism, exist? Can art reach the people it traditionally excludes?
The bare minimum requests of the billboards present the art world, and artists, with these challenges. Does the art world even care if it reaches the masses, or not? And does the art that does strive for this make it where it can be consumed and communicated? For Zarina, in this discrepancy between art and audience, it is very much “on contemporary art to then bridge the gap”. It is contemporary art’s responsibility “to provide something meaningful to people who are financially not able to fuck away a weekend in zone one, thinking about abstract concepts”.
The way to start this process is not necessarily diversifying large institutions. As Zarina points out “you can have as many black and brown curators and the Tate is still gonna be racist. These problems are structural and representational change isn’t going to plug the gaps”.
On a smaller scale however, she points out that in “local galleries, midsize galleries, galleries who do six commissions a year...If there are less middle class weirdos […] asking questions about the extent of what that commission can include” then you might just get work that her “cousin would care about”. Though it’s very difficult, we both agree, to marry individual responsibility and action, with structural and systemic problems, Zarina sums it up perfectly: “you can’t do that structural change on an individual level but that doesn’t mean that individuals can’t make changes”.
"It is contemporary art’s responsibility to provide something meaningful to people who are financially not able to fuck away a weekend in zone one, thinking about abstract concepts."
One of the ways in which this is possible is when successful people pay forward their success. When people who the door has opened for, pull people in with them. This leads us to The White Pube’s wonderful grant for working class writers. Excitedly, Zarina tells me that this is her “favourite thing to talk about” and her “favourite time of the fucking month!” She explains that her and Gabrielle have “always wanted to do a writer’s grant and it’s always been something we’ve kind of prayed for.” The motivation behind this has been a complete awareness of the data that’s working against them. Despite Zarina’s discomfort with saying it for both her and Gabrielle, she highlights that with her “brown Muslim identity” and Gabrielle’s “working class identity”, they are both “intimately aware” that “statistically speaking we shouldn’t be here. We’re very much in the minority.” She’s “not really sure what stars particularly aligned to give us two specific gobshites the will and determination to cling on for this long!” but as a result, her and Gabrielle want to extend their access, and bring people up with them.
She acknowledges that beyond “mad luck”, the pair have been given “specific opportunities by specific people. And people have paid things forward to us”. So, in the spirit of that politic, and in the spirit of resisting the gate-keeping so familiar in the creative industry, The White Pube created this grant.
In early 2020, they were working with Creative Debuts, who were just starting their Black Artist’s Grant. In return for the girls’ encouragement of the project, the organization asked if they’d be interested in starting a grant of their own. They are the main source of the funding and, as Zarina explains, every month the girls “pick a name out of a hat” and award the grant.
In an ideal world, “it would be good to get more, like a couple of other funders involved and make that pot of money a bit bigger. Or offer non-material contributions too. But it’s a work in progress.” Currently, the grant is a one-off £500 for working class writers, of all ages, to support them in their early careers. When I ask her why specifically a writer’s grant, rather than an artist’s grant more generally, Zarina points to some facts that the pandemic has made abundantly clear: “outside of that formal publication structure there’s very little support for writers.” Freelance writers especially “have just been out of work, or they’ve seen such a significant amount of their income dry up on a month to month basis.” With far fewer residencies and other programmes for writers, rather than visual artists, it’s understandable why The White Pube chose to narrow down the grant in this way.
As we discuss Arts Council funding more generally, Zarina highlights the fact that “it isn’t small, grassroots community projects that are serving marginalised communities, or refugee communities in dispersal areas, it’s not them that are winning big on arts council cash.” In fact, you can, with some digging, look at the the way Arts Council England funding is distributed here. The aforementioned opacity rings very true here (when I say digging, I mean digging. Through some serious jargon). It’s often huge institutions, and well-established creators and industries, that pose no threat to dominant ideology, that receive the biggest support.
This opens up larger issues about the politics of the actual content of art being made by marginalised groups. Zarina explains that in her writing about “diaspora art in the past” she’s come across artists “from marginalised backgrounds that are making art that tiptoes between radical intention and, like...such safe execution.” Another layer of the issue that popped up time and again in our conversation, is that there is art that “never really identifies the actual source of the problem.” Rather than being directed “upwards at the institution”, art that is showcased often points “in a vague area of a vague abstract concept”, allowing the institution to “be complicit in your agenda, or buy in, it can hand you opportunities.” In short, “it can be a nice way of playing both sides of the game”: art is produced that “toes that balance between radical intention” and yet falls “flat in identifying the problem”. This makes institutions look good, makes them appear to care about diversity, but not be culpable or complicit in accusing the status quo.
Plenty more could be written and said about the thread we begin to pull at: “the way institutional diversity policy positions itself in relation to diverse artists.” But, as we both agree, “that’s a thought for another day!” What is important in the context of mine and Zarina’s conversation is the way in which The White Pube’s grant challenges this process. Not only do the pair pay their success forward, reinforcing the horizontal nature of their project, they continue to deconstruct the injustices of other places in the industry. The grant, paired with the billboards, remind us of the power of grassroots action more generally. In a gesture that highlights the laughable efforts of the ideological powerhouses of the art world, The White Pube wants to help people. And the grant really is just the beginning of that.
To apply for the writer's grant, and find out more about The White Pube follow the link: here
Jessie Florence Jones is an essayist, journalist, and editor from Liverpool. She is also one of the literature editors at Radical Art Review. Follow her on Twitter.
This article is part of our series #Stateofthearts. If you have a story or experience of working through the pandemic in a creative industry, get in touch!