In their latest Dazed column, your art agony aunts Gabrielle de la Puente and Zarina Muhammad grapple with a difficult question
Anonymous: I have a very personal question that may apply to other artists out there. As a British Indian, how do you stop your work looking so western? I've been thinking about this a lot lately, and looking at my work closely. It always ends up looking European, and I don't know how to get out of that loop so my work speaks a different cultural language, or is that not an issue I should be concerned with? I would appreciate your thoughts on this.
The White Pube: This feels like a timely question, between the Drama™ with Babbu the Painter’s latest IG posts, and this growing apathy/borderline anger towards Diaspora aesthetics - i feel like there is something brewing. So I am glad you asked!
I wana start by asking, like fr fr sincerely honestly, what does European art look like? that might sound facetious but i think it’s a necessary question to ask as a follow-up. In my mind, so much of what is so deeply coded as Western/ European art was robbed! Picasso robbed from ~African Art (a robbery so vague & essentialist that it rly can’t get any more specific in terminology than that), all of them really – Matisse, Braque, even Warhol. the pioneers of early abstraction were plundering the cultural depths of the-entire-continent-of-africa, and tbh wasn’t the exaggerated colour and transcendence of perspective in Fauvism something that artists across Asia had been doing for qWhite a while? Wasn’t Surrealism a poor substitute for Magical Realism (a Latin American movement)? (no one @ me about this, these r all my art history hot-takes & i refuse 2 google 2 confirm). I j wana take some time to poke a hole in that and for you do to the same bc i don’t think it’s honest to declare that an image looking Very Western is something that actually exists. imo, sounds like yet more gatekeeping from an academy w skin in the game.
really stressed out about the number of white people making art about being white— The White Pube (@thewhitepube) February 14, 2019
I think i know what you’re getting at though, and in my mind it’s not that you have something in mind so visibly Western, it’s that you want your work to look visibly Not-Western. And that’s where my bum starts to clench, and my palms sweat. Bc that feels like a rly difficult kind of Orientalism; representing the East through the lens of the West, or negatively defining the East by what the West is not. what kind of twisted inverted thing has happened there! how has the Coloniser got us so fucked up that we are unable to directly grasp the hands of our own aesthetic without reenacting the violence of our oppression also ??
And i think that, right there, that’s the difficulty of being an artist of colour trying to make art alongside the heavy weight of your own body & history. You lean in too far and u slip into essentialism; diaspora Art is damaging! a type of violence (as Babbu has proven) in and of itself. but you lean out, and you’ve been whitewashed. but I call BOLLOCKS, hit the bullshit button. i am sick and tired of this balancing act where quite frankly the goalposts for this spinchter of ‘acceptable aesthetic balance’ change every damn year. And I can tell you that WE are not the people defining this acceptability! it’s the MARKET! this aesthetic balance is defined by what SELLS. when i think of artists a few decades older than me, like Anish Kapoor or Mona Hatoum, who were knocking around in the 90s & 00s... like they weren’t making art about brown-ness at allllll. it was kinda passé, trite, a bit cooler to j Make like normal artists (normal being assimilated). Nothing wrong with it, it’s what sold at the time, and even if you weren’t selling, the stuff that does sell comes to define ~good taste~ anyway. Before that, round the 70s & 80s we had Rasheed Araeen, Chila Burman, artists who defined themselves as part of the Black Arts movement. They made art fiercely about identity and aesthetically reflected that.
“there are so many artists out there rn that are finding an aesthetic balance, defining and mediating a relationship between their bodies, their histories and the skins within their work. n managing to do so on their own terms” – The White Pube
Now things feel more slickly capitalistic... Babbu, Hatecopy, whose work really is tied again to selling; all the artists i wrote about in my text about the Problem with Diaspora Art... it makes me wonder, why is the sphincter of acceptability passing back towards reclamation? is it really about embracing our bindiwearing-foreheads, or is it about selling something ~exotic & ~cool to a white audience (whether they’re buying into it or not)? the market is deciding yet again. i want out of that back & forth, and tbh from your wording (from you saying you want ur work to speak a different cultural language) it sounds like you do too. i think the way to do that is not fucking concern urself with whether the work looks too Western/European. bc by doing so, all you do is create an image of what the Occident wants the Orient to be, rather than an image of what we really are in reality. take bits, make something of substance, with meaning, that you can really say with your chest. sth that comes from the very internal depths of your body. Don’t reduce ur art to the nearest binary or representational object, get rid of the representational object all together! don’t look to convey meaning through objects, look to convey through another vehicle altogether. Look to some artists that do that really well already: Imran Perretta, Rehana Zaman, Michelle Williams Gamaker, Alia Pathan, Hardeep Pandhal... n not just South Asian artists! look to the Black diaspora too: Evan Ifekoya, Arthur Jafa, tbh Grace Wales Bonner’s show at Serpentine atm, Paul Maheke, fuckin loads omg too many to name!
there are so many artists out there rn that are finding an aesthetic balance, defining and mediating a relationship between their bodies, their histories and the skins within their work. n managing to do so on their own terms. I beg u look to them. it’s a subtle balance & you must tread it yourself and figure out where the limit lies for you. Only when you put on those blinkers and dig from within will you be able to make something (aesthetically) that references what you want it to, without pandering to the white gaze. Good luck, I wish you well. <3