Gabrielle de la Puente (left) and Zarina Muhammad (right) in Downing CollgeINSTAGRAM: @THEWHITEPUBE

Zarina Muhammad and Gabrielle de la Puente were born seven days apart and never argue. On 20th January the creators of The White Pube, a “collaborative identity”, gave a talk in Downing College, hosted by The Blake Society.

The White Pube write unabashedly personal art reviews on a weekly basis; sincere and humorous (see their emoji summaries) the duo allow their lives to permeate art critique in a way that is far more reminiscent of diaries and vlogs than traditional art critiquing.

Throughout the talk we are vividly guided through The White Pube's genesis; whilst the pair were studying at Central Saint Martins, de la Puente recommended an art exhibition to Muhammad, managing to accurately describe precisely why she would enjoy it. Later, Muhammad found a soulless review of the same show in a national newspaper; and, together, they spent the rest of that day dissecting its contents. Soon, they had an idea: what if they were to pen an alternative review? The kind of thing one friend would say to another?

It was Muhammad who conceived the idea for the witty name “The White Pube”, a pun on the White Cube galleries’ concept of displaying art in a white cubic spacesupposedly to  liberate it from context and bias. In actuality it seems as though this notion rejects alternative narratives, reinforcing the dominance of what is often thought of as the traditional older white male art critic.

“Gradually recognising the hulking presence of institutions, was ‘like learning to tell the time’”

De la Puente and Muhammad announced their new project, launched the wackiest of websites (which, having been shown screenshots of during the talk, I can only describe as a wonky, pastel-hued, and almost hallucinogenic 2015-esque work of internet art) and became “baby art critics”. However, it was when artists whose work they had reviewed began to follow and retweet their reviews that they realised The White Pube was creating a much-needed space for dialogue that people could believe in.

Today they've become “the art police”, contacted for help last summer by workers at a major art exhibition with unsafe working conditions. “We know nothing about employment law,” admitted Muhammad, and yet, people think that they are powerful, and so they are. With no one to answer to, and a strong online following, The White Pube have a voice that can speak for those who cannot without risk; and, people are taking notice.

Going into the finer details of their work, de la Puente and Muhammad acknowledged and explained how their ability to cherry-pick opportunities (such as a new advice column in Dazed, which will be used to pay their website’s monthly artist residencies), ensuring fair pay from (fairly) ethical organisations, relies on them living at home and working full-time jobs. Outside of The White Pube, Muhammad works as a London marketing manager, and de la Puente as curator and manager of the OUTPUT gallery in Liverpool.

Gradually recognising the hulking presence of institutions, was “like learning to tell the time,” stated de la Puente – once you know you know. However, by the time of their graduation, the pair refused to engage with “boring” academic critical theory (although Muhammad confessed to currently be reading some); and de la Puente's examiner penalised her for failing to demonstrate faith in the art world.

“Nothing is clear-cut in the game that is the art world”

The most interesting discussion of the night was sparked by The Problem With Diaspora Art, an essay published by Muhammad in November of 2018. The Problem With Diaspora Art is a thoughtful exploration of the risks of diaspora art becoming primarily aesthetic, consumed in a vacuum, relying on tropes of otherness, and being manipulated by institutions and businesses. Institutions and businesses which invite BME artists to perform, give one-off talks, or temporarily display their works; creating a false sense that institutions are decolonising and diversifying, when, in reality, the artists involved are often offered little to no recognition for their work.

Diaspora artists with trendy zeitgeist aesthetics are sublimated into temporary, unfulfilling spotlights, generating an unstable dynamic of creation and reception partly reliant on white appetite, performative diversity and virtue-signalling. Holding roundtable sessions with BME artists led to the conclusion that a union or guild is required to help navigate this tricky world, but how this could materialise is uncertain. When pressed, it's clear Muhammad's thoughts on the issue are not fully defined, something her essay willingly admits. When the option is financial instability, or being able to pay rent and “repurchase a moisturiser”, the choice is clear… probably? She admires artists for making money from their work, yet seems to hold The White Pube to higher standards.


Mountain View

The Mays: an interview with the editors

Despite a comprehensive and enlightening talk, my only reservation is I did not feel that the duo managed to always explain or explore their approach convincingly. Asked about the place for emotion-based criticism in academia, their reply was somewhat vague: they only review art they can visit, ruling out historical exhibitions. But the online existence of all their reviews and essays is an active contribution to the canon of art criticism, even when going against the grain. I was left unsure as to whether they properly argued the case for reviewing art through a personal lens.

The White Pube left me feeling that nothing is clear-cut in the game that is the art world; there’s always a darker side that can be drawn out from seemingly progressive action. Increased opportunities for marginalised artists come with the danger that institutions and brands are seeking only to profit from the trendiness of diversity, offering temporary platforms and insufficient support. On a more hopeful note, Muhammad and de la Puente taught me that it is possible to simultaneously be yourself – revise and shake up traditional modes of commentary and criticism – and be noticed and appreciated.

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