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The White Pube

How to deal with your art being a token choice, according to The White Pube

In their latest Dazed column, art agony aunts Gabrielle de la Puente and Zarina Muhammad advise on how to address art world quotas

In their ongoing Dazed Voices column, art writers and curators The White Pube answer your burning questions about the industry, in a way only they can

Anonymous: As I am getting more recognition for my work, I am also heavily aware that I am being welcomed in spaces and given opportunities due to tokenism. How do I navigate the world of art and taking up opportunities with the knowledge of the moral dilemma I face, that I am the equality quota for being a black woman who was a refugee and that may have influenced their opinion on taking me on. Should I take these opportunities? How do I address tokenism when I am made aware that this was how I got my opportunity?

The White Pube: Hello anon. This is a good question, and one that I was kinda gripped with for a while. I want to start by sayin, yes; sometimes quotas feel a bit weird n arbitrary, but they aren’t fundamentally bad. I have no baseline problem with quotas; if that’s what a white organisation needs, they can fuck it up w a good quota. It provides accountability & concrete solid standards they can hold themselves to, a commitment n an announcement that they’re dedicating energy to <this> mission to ~diversify~. So much of the art world is stuffed full of performative liberal politicking in gestural or visible ~diversity~ as a buzzword; I know a lot of places that could do with a hard, immutable quota. So, if you’re worried that you’re only getting your foot in the door bc of a quota: PLEASE DON’T. Of course you should take these opportunities, of course, you deserve them, and of course you shouldn’t feel bad for taking up space at the table. We belong here too; in the words of Christopher Kirubi (someone much wiser & more eloquent than me): ‘these institutions should belong to us’. 

So don’t feel bad, there isn’t a moral dilemma, bc tbh who cares. Lots of white artists are only allowed to get away with what they call art bc of their identity. Some white artists are only able to show and go off round the world’s art fairs bc of who their mum & dad are, or who they have ins & connections with, who their art school mates were, or who they snort lines in a penthouse bedroom with. Some white artists are only having retrospectives bc thousands of middle-class pensioners would be willing to spend £20 to see it - rather than it being inherently worthy of our attention, it’s j a household name, like Stacey Dooley or Piers Morgan. Some ppl, worse ppl are just there for (honestly) fuck knows what reason. So. Go. Off. Nepotism is worse than a diversity quota, a cliquey curatorial agenda is worse than a quota, rich collectors on a gallery board dictating programme is worse than a quota. There isn’t a place out there deciding these things fairly. It’s a rough world in the arts industry, especially as a black woman, and the institutional racism that runs through these spaces makes making a living from this shit even harder. Take everything they offer you, and then some. Rob this England, pls I beg u. 

“Take everything they offer you, and then some. Rob this England, pls I beg u” – The White Pube

But then, you’re also asking a more complex (and, imo, a more interesting) question about how to navigate this whole messy flat-lay. Bc while you might be able to put aside the qualms n moral dilemma of this double-edged sword; other people (maybe even the ones that asked you in in the first place) might not. As I am writing this, I’ve just read the article Chiraag Bhakta published with Mother Jones on his experience working with the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco in 2013. Spoiler; it wasn’t a good experience. It’s definitely worth a read, just as a horror story, but also bc he manages to condense what happened & why down into something really painfully universal for most creative labourers of colour: ‘My experience with the Asian Art Museum was an exercise in watching white people work out their identity on the back of mine. The platform they seemed to give me, it turned out, wasn’t actually for me - it was for them, a way to fashion my Brownness into something they could wear.’ I think his analysis kinda doesn’t go far enough - the quote above is probably as close as he gets to an actual crystallised point on what the institutional end-goal could’ve been. IMO, when tokenism is happening, it’s the mechanisms of an institutional machine (that was out-dated & entirely too conservative) realising they have to catch up n get #woke, and replacing the conservatism with a neoliberal politic of visible representation, rather than liberatory or radical change. (I wrote about this rly a bit too extensively over the summer in The Problem With Representation). 

There’s not really any one way to effectively deal with that situation; knowing that you’re being tokenised. I’d say: keep ownership and agency of what you’re doing & your work INCREDIBLY close to your chest, don’t let the institution dictate the terms of it if it doesn’t suit you, and don’t  compromise on your work (unless you sincerely know it’d make it better). Don’t be afraid to be difficult; if they haven’t got it right, make them do it again, right. Insist on fair & equitable payment, bc if it’s a shitshow, you might as well be paid well for it, enit? Take as much as you can, do not give more than you need to & abOVE ALL, never be afraid to just pull out. If it’s possible, and you’re not contractually obliged to do something, you can always write a strongly worded email and say ‘this is why I am not participating’. Never apologise for doing the above. Never be afraid of making a fuss. Never sign an NDA unless you’ve consulted a lawyer/a peer or mentor with experience handling this shit. And never let them intimidate you. Tokenism gets tricky bc it preys on this feeling; this precarity we’re all mired in, this fear of scarcity. When we don’t matter to the institution, we can be so easily replaced; there’s always someone more generous, someone easier to work with, someone willing to compromise or do it for free queued up behind us. What if we all just fucking agreed not to do any of that? WHAT IF WE ALL JUST UNIONISED?? (no fr, what if we acc j unionised, I’ve been saying this for years).

I think a wider point I wana mention, is that it could one day be possible to just sidestep all of this (INSHALLAHHHH). When we first started TWP, within the first year or so, we were contacted by a large magazine with a fairly well-known arts section. The editor wanted to meet with us to see if we’d be interested in writing reviews for them. It wasn’t much money, it sounded like more agg than the money was able to reimburse us for, and at the end of it, we’d have to be ‘edited into [REDACTED]’s in-house voice’. Tell me, WHAT IS THE POINT?? We actually asked the editor & he said something along the lines of ‘well, we’re just 2 white guys here, and we want to make sure we’re publishing a diverse range of voices’… so basically he wanted to put both of our nice exotic surnames: MUHAMMAD, DE LA PUENTE, at the end of something he’d hammered into a shape of his liking. It was tokenism, pure n simple. We told him no, and we haven’t regretted it. By publishing our own thoughts in our own space under our own steam, ye, we haven’t been paid as much as if we’d done this on another platform (with funders, with advertisers n with wages). But, tbh if we had any hope for significant financial stability through writing for another platform, we would be naive n FOOLISH. Publishing ourselves has given us freedom & the ability to gather acclaim on our own terms (rather than as a part of another platform’s wider ulterior motive). Our independence is now something we’re proud of, protective of, that we are unwilling to compromise on (idk if youse have all noticed, but the good folks @ Dazed haven’t been editing us, they’ve j been letting us at it, typos & allll). I say this to labour a point, not just for you as an individual, but for us all as creative labourers of colour. If you are in a position to start a space of your own, an art criticism platform of your own, a curatorial collective, aNYTHING, that provides an alternative to these white-ass institutions. MY GOD, PLEASE DO. It’ll be hard, it’ll be thankless, but you can do it alongside other jobs (like we do, like BBZ, and gal-dem’s editors, like artist-led spaces across the country). It doesn’t have to be everyday DIY martyrdom, I rly believe there are ways to make it work. Look @ how sick it is to have Transmission up in Glasgow, just casually working with mostly poc artists with their all poc committee. I want one in London. We might not be able to replace or overtake these white-ass museums, but we can put pressure on them to insist on a cultural shift. We can create an environment n an arts ecology where we are all aware that there are other ways of working, where we can not just demand, but expect more. Have more given to us as default rather than as a hard-fought for reward for our persistence. I think we owe it to those that come up after us to fight for that. 

Ultimately, it’s not that you owe the opportunities you get to tokenism. Anyone that tells you that’s the case is a flaming racist, and you should SPIT IN THEIR EYE. I hope I’ve made a compelling point, but I also hope that someone reads this as a rallying cry to start something (or to unionise, please consider it). If you do, hmu. I’m willing to help, go for coffee, give advice, willing to listen n hook u up with someone that can help more, pull up my sleeves and get stuck in too. I want to see poc artists and curators and critics FLOURISHING! And we are, slowly! But it’s often at the end of a lengthy and difficult battle. It doesn’t have to be, bc ‘these institutions should belong to us’.