I’m really trusting you to try to turn these horrible vague aphorisms into cogent thoughts.
Zarina Muhammad is one half of The White Pube – the groundbreaking critical duo reviewing and reflecting on exhibitions and the Art World TM in essays that read like Twitter threads from someone you’re desperately hoping will follow you back. Artist, meme-maker and iconoclast extraordinaire, Muhammad’s cut-the-bullshit attitude to the hallowed hallways of the most exclusive cultural scene of the modern era has invited unexpected notoriety and all the clout of an Instagram influencer, for herself and for her equally talented platonic soulmate, Gabrielle de la Puente. Over the phone, the night before the duo fly to Copenhagen to give a lecture (and immediately after I’ve spent an unrelatedly FUN hour answering a questionnaire on suicide ideation over the phone for R E S E A R C H) she reflects on the “mild state of chaos” they’ve been living through since summer 2018.
“I don’t know specifically what set it off. We can place it in the vague ballpark of that moment in time because that’s when we did the interview with the Guardian and were on Dazed 100. As a result of that, the people following us didn’t come from places of complicity. Before that we had loads of followers that got where we were coming from – they understood our righteous anger. And then all of a sudden we had loads of latte dads and white corbyn bros and middle class mums from, like, Tewksbury.”
While TWP’s follower count has grown steadily since its genesis on a CSM BA Fine Art in 2015, the spike last year catapulted both women into hyper-visibility. Right now, the official account for an art critic duo with an impressive ratio of Love-Island-Content to Not-Love-Island-Content has 21.3k followers on Twitter and 25.3k on insta. As deserving as this is, it’s also slightly insane, and the usual problems of visibly being an Online Person are heightened by the very nature of the “embodied criticism” the pair engage in.
“When we write about exhibitions, the review is a personal reaction; a record of an encounter with an aesthetic experience” their website states. Muhammad explains: “We were doing a talk in Nottingham and one of the students put there hand up and said ‘what you’re doing is embodied criticism, right?’ and followed on with a question. And we sort of blinked and thought ‘oh fuck we’re gonna fucking have that!’ Not that we’re ok being labeled by other people – we’re gobshites and really difficult about it! But if we like something… I mean it’s kind of part of the way that art-making works, right? You make a thing, you don’t know what it is, you talk to other people, see what they say, and from there you post-rationalise and build up a context around it, rather than set up a specific purpose to deconstruct Greenberg’s writing on abstraction or whatever.”
The pair have been credited with making the fundamentally elitist realm of art criticism much more accessible and #relatable to millennial and gen z audiences, and the perceived radicalness of this approach is certainly part of the reason their new years’ resolution to “travel more” has panned out, with invitations to speak in eight different countries over the last six months. Muhammad is surprisingly reluctant to claim that appeal as a premise of the project, however.
“We don’t set out with the aim of making criticism more accessible, it’s just ended up like that. We write as we speak. If it ends up making art more accessible as a knock on effect, then that’s a good thing. Participation in The Art World TM is by fact of its nature a white bourgeois pursuit. The more you have actual people coming into the gallery being like ‘well that’s a bit shit isn’t it?’ the more institutions can be held to account by their public. If we can drive more people into the gallery, that’s good, but it’s definitely not a conscious pursuit of ours.”
In any case, TWP’s emphasis on subjectivity and personal (rather than canonical) frames of reference – combined with their use of online platforms for their writing and a proliferation of selfies and anecdotes on social media – has further fucked the public/private binary, feeding “soft parasocial” relationships between the duo and their followers. Days after my phone call with Muhammad, a joint essay goes live on The White Pube website exploring just this dynamic. “I think the internet is prematurely ageing me and it’s all your fault. you lot ye, but mostly the middle aged men. some women called Jane. i will explain” it begins, before delving into the shitstorm of unsolicited advice and racist/sexist/classist trolling commonly invited by the audacity of two women having opinions online.
An example cited in the piece, that Muhammad refers to over the phone, is the storm of disappointed comments prompted by an instagram photo of her posing in front of a communist shrine in Kerala. The post received a barrage of admonishments for endorsing a ‘dangerous ideology’, that Muhammad finds both perplexing and indicative of the dangers of para-social relations. “It was one of those super tongue in cheek moments, but I’m ngl, my dads family are Bengali…I’m literally a communist.” The assumption of a common political identity, from a diverse audience whose own ideals are completely beyond the scope of TWP to anticipate or placate, is evidently grating.
“At the moment I’m very much into the idea of telling people to fuck off,” is Muhammad’s measured perspective. “I don’t feel any particular guilt about telling middle class weirdos where to stick it. As a critic and as a person – not only am I critic: I’m also, like, a person – I don’t think that’s my audience. Those aren’t the people I’m friends with. I don’t move in that social circle. I’m not particularly writing for them anyway. I don’t understand why there’s that weird entitlement to correcting me, because any investment that they feel is completely unreciprocated.”
Aside from political affiliation, the tone used in talking about experiences of elitist spaces has incurred as much disapproval. Attending the Serpentine Garden Party on a borrowed invite, and spending “the whole time complaining that it was full of white people dancing badly”, triggered some women called Jane to the extent that 50 middle-aged mums sent repeated and unsolicited attacks for an apparent lack of gratitude in having access to that space in the first place. “They were DM’ing us incessantly, calling me a brat for complaining and telling me how lucky I was that I’d got this invite that costs thousands of pounds. Of course I’m fucking complaining, it was weird!”
As happens literally any time I speak to a desi kid, at this point I treat Muhammad to a brief history of my own imposter syndrome at school, university and artistic/cultural spaces. Whether it’s under-the-radar nights or high-profile galleries, there’s a commonality of experience among desis who are able to front just enough cultural capital to justify the space we take up. I talk about how bizarre I still find being in rooms dominated by monied white folk with very specific cultural registers, and how the temptation to play up to the room means I rarely engage with the art on a personal level, but performatively align myself with the assumed authority figures around me. I ask if, since starting TWP, the ways in which Muhammad has interacted with these spaces has changed?
“It definitely has. Maybe when we started at Saint Martins, through all of second year I went to maybe one exhibition. Before that I felt so fucking awkward in a gallery. I didn’t know what I needed to do, I didn’t know what was expected of me, or what I’d get out of it. It felt like a weird exercise in futility. Through the process of empowering myself as a critic (omg what a dickhead) and going into a gallery with a mission in mind… I needed that hook in or that purpose to make myself feel comfortable there.”
This newfound comfort has presumably been cemented by the litany of institutions clamouring for a taste of what The White Pube are offering. Recently, Frieze Academy offered them £200 (each) to tutor a masterclass on social media in the art world – and the pair refused. “The people that would be there would be paying £100 for the privilege, so who would we be teaching the tricks of the trade to in the first place?” Muhammad is open about the fact that the ability to refuse opportunities like this is due to both her and de la Puente working day jobs – Muhammad at a London-based travel company and de la Puente at a gallery in Liverpool – and they’re shockingly transparent with their finances, publishing their accounts on the website (“We try to use that as leverage with these institutions but the art world doesn’t want to pay people”).
TWP’s Twitter is replete with scathing admonishments of respected institutions, even when those very institutions are the ones lining up to give them a platform. In her inspired essay “The Problem with Diaspora Art” Muhammad explores the trajectory of cultural and artistic scenes being tokenised and co-opted.
“What happens when the curators in the Tate office look to Instagram (as we know they often do) to scout talent for their next venture? … In its search for novelty and the cutting-edge of discourse, what else can it do other than pick up people – Makers, Creatives, and Discourse-wallahs – it sees as ~trendy, visible, and capable of pulling crowds~? … The Institution reaps endless benefit from engaging w POC makers too precarious to hold up a clear challenge to their internal practices, their intention and politics…the public program they churn out is gestural, positioning itself as genuine enquiry that leads to nowhere developmentally.”
Amid TWP’s own huge popularity burst and roster of appearances, I ask whether or not they are at risk of being tokenised as a hip new anti-critique in exactly the same way that Diaspora art and artists can and have been.
“That’s a really fucking good question. Yeah, I am scared about what we’ve made being co-opted by white institutions, and I’m always, always skeptical. I think we would say yes to anything once but – and maybe this is insane hubris – I think we’re way too chaotic for these institutions to bank on in any serious or reliable way. Like, we can go to a meeting at the Tate, they can ask us to be critics in residence, but we’re going to end up pulling apart everything that they do. And I think that in every situation that we enter into, we’re insistent on our freedom to write and say what we want. We’ve never been afraid to burn bridges.”
Bored and uninvested at the private school she attended on a subsidised place, Muhammad concedes that this irreverence can be traced back to her teens, when feeling utterly unengaged led to her being “a bit rowdy.” I’m surprised that she wasn’t particularly interested in art at school, and that she only did an art foundation course as a planned gap year before a PPE undergrad at LSE (the plan being to go on to work for an NGO and “do something actually good” with her life). “Everyone just thought I was wasting space at school, which I probably was tbh. And then I went to art college and everything felt politically urgent all of a sudden. It was just like oh shit, this is what I care about!”
This sense of political urgency, especially when it involved pushing back against the infrastructures they were being educated into, has taken TWP from strength to irreverent strength. It’s clear that they’ve accelerated the discourse around representation and structural accommodation in The Art World massively in a short time: but directed at such an exclusive scene to begin with, can what TWP does be called activism?
“I think I’d be being facetious if I said that it wasn’t activism (but then I am quite facetious, so it wouldn’t be off brand). TWP was born out of mine and Gabrielle’s separate practices as artists. Both of us made art that was politically urgent, as related to our subjectivities – her as a working class scouser being really proud of her heritage, and me being equally proud of mine, and both of us feeling really fucking alienated by the art word. That informed out politics and our artistic praxis. But it’s perhaps not Activism in a capital A sense. At the end of the day, none of this is affecting my mum or my cousin or my grandma’s life. I’m not out there campaigning for immigration reform. None of this is actually meaningful in any way. I’m just shouting at an institution like the Tate to hire one person of colour and pay them. It doesn’t mean anything, I don’t think.
“I have faith in it insofar as I know institutions have the capacity and potential to do better, but none of the people in it are that good. The right people don’t rise to the top because of art’s deep entrenchment in capitalism’s wheels. The art world is so monied and conservative in comparison to even theatre, it’s honestly disgusting at times. Like at the Serpentine Garden Party – no one there gave a fuck about the actual Serp, they were just oligarchs there to have a good time. That is the art world. They’re the ones in charge, with the power to say yes or no things, they’re the ones giving it a directing hand. It doesn’t matter. Dismantle it all.”
Words by: Amardeep Singh Dhillon
Images Courtesy of: The White Pube’s Instagram