Gabrielle de la Puente and Zarina Muhammad’s approach to art criticism is game-changing in the era of social media
The art world today is one of the most elitist and white industries in Britain. If a Thursday evening gallery opening wasn’t enough evidence, a recent survey, Panic! Social Class,Taste and Inequalities in the Creative Industries, gave us the hard statistics to confirm our speculations. The survey revealed that only 18.2 per cent of those working in music, and the performing and visual arts come from a working-class background. And just 2.7 per cent of people working in museums, galleries and libraries are from black and minority ethnic communities (BAME).
Enter The White Pube, the collaborative identity of Gabrielle de la Puente and Zarina Muhammad – both 23-year-old women living at their mum’s in Liverpool and London respectively. Together, they post art criticism, imitate famous works of art, and sometimes curate shows. With a deliberate prerogative to subvert the art world’s rhetoric (starting with their name), the pair writes honest and overtly subjective responses to exhibitions, reality TV shows and even mobile phone games. Over the past two years, their following has swelled – they now pull in 10k hits a month on their site, have been cited by Grayson Perry in his lectures, and have even been recognised by someone who sold them doughnuts in Glasgow. The White Pube is challenging, unashamed, relevant – and actually fun to read.
“If it’s fucking shit, tell people it’s fucking shit” – Gabrielle de la Puente
Both de la Puente and Muhammed view the bulk of art criticism today as “not very critical”. It’s no secret that art publications shy away from publishing negative reviews. It’s a tricky position – how do you go about critiquing the institutions and galleries that are paying for advertising space in your magazine? But The White Pube defy the art world’s pandering – “You can’t just push people through the door with fake positivity and contrived optimism,” de la Puente tells me. “If it’s fucking shit, tell people it’s fucking shit.”
But it’s not just the content that’s subversive. The White Pube’s use of emojis, internet-speak, and tumblr aesthetics act as the proverbial middle finger to the anachronisms of the art world. “When criticism is productive, it’s normally completely impenetrable... like hardcore theory. I don’t understand it,” Muhammed says. “I do not rate Foucault!” The White Pube’s criticism demonstrates that intelligent debate doesn’t need to be wrapped up in deliberately difficult language. The choice of medium(s) bolsters the message further, as the Instagram, and Twitter are as much The White Pube as the site – “I feel like you have to pay attention to all three to fully experience the criticism we do in their different forms”. Their gravitation towards social media – most young people’s natural habitat – positions art criticism in a more temporally relevant space, allowing for real-time debate and accessibility.
Ultimately though The White Pube’s subversion lies in the pair’s identities: “I think it’s valuable to have our voices audible within the arena of art critics. It’s not just the way we write, it’s the identity of who we are. We’re diversifying what art critics should look like in 2018.” They tell me that they want people to know details like what their accents sound like and where they’re from. “That's why there are so many images of us on our Instagram and our Twitter,” says de la Puente. But there is an unfortunate side effect to their identities being so public – “I feel like if we’re putting too much of ourselves on Instagram, that's when people don’t know that we write. We’re just faces”. They tell me how it’s always photos of them, rather than of artwork, that do the rounds on social media – “The reviews are kind of like the ugly cousin” Muhammad says. However, they are determined to resist a Cool Girl Online persona eclipsing their work. ‘'I am going to have start wearing crocs to balance it out,” de la Puente emails me.
When I ask them how they’re going to sustain themselves financially being so ferociously independent they reply that they do not know. “To be honest, I wouldn’t be opposed to getting Nando’s to sponsor us,” Muhammed says, only half joking. They do run a patreon account, which allows readers to donate to them, and have been writers in residence at the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art over the past year. They have also stopped working for other people for free – “We felt ashamed to admit that we needed money to live but now we demand it”. Although it’s what they determine as a minimal gesture, one of The White Pube’s most subversive acts is the publishing of their Accounts on their site. The page functions as leverage when negotiating payment with institutions: “They have super deep pockets of money,” Muhammed tells me. “As soon as we send them an email saying ‘Our accounts are public’ they suddenly reply saying ‘We’re going to fight for you! And reallocate unused budget!’”. The page not only provides those earlier in their career with a guide, but also offers welcome and unusual transparency in an industry that underpays its workers and often regards ‘exposure’ as interchangeable with a wage. The White Pube are here to fight for a more inclusive and honest art world – hopefully, institutions are ready to listen.