This month, we got in touch with Zarina Muhammad to talk about politics and the art world. Zarina is one half of the critical and (occasionally) curatorial collective The White Pube with fellow Central Saint Martins alumna Gabrielle de la Puente. The pair met during their BA and now publish new content weekly on their website, where they also host a digital residency. Their writing focuses on dismantling pre-existing power structures in the visual culture. Catch more of their content at thewhitepube.co.uk
Aleks: I was itching to ask you some questions since attending your talk during the ‘I Want You to Speak to Me’ symposium in the Gorvy Lecture Theatre in May of this year. You summarised your activity then as bringing attention to what currently matters, and to quote your words from memory, ‘what matters right now is bad politics in the art world.’ I’ll start off with a big question - what constitutes an ethical art practice?
Zarina: o god, this feels big. i think it’s maybe j empathy? or maybe a sense of urgency when confronting the issue of inequality? i don’t rly know how to answer this, bc whenever it comes to define it, i j fall back on ‘i know it when i see it’. like don’t be racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic/ableist/violent? maybe it’s also like,,, j equity? are people within the pipeline of making (obviously not j the maker as singular author) treated w parity? do the ppl within the practice of this one maker have agency to assert their position? i think so much of this is so contextual i feel rly uncomfortable offering a blanket definition so literally ignore all of the above. Watch the Good Place tbh, i think i don’t know too much about what Ethics actually means bc it’s so complex n comes w such a heavy history. i think idk if i actually like the Good Place as a show, or if i like learning about Ethics through the breadcrumbs of it in the narrative arc of that show.
A: Does contemporary art practice have the responsibility of being ethical?
Z: yes. but like, so does everything. Lawyers have the responsibility to be ethical, so do doctors, and journalists and bin men and pilots and accountants and chefs. we all, as pEOPLE in this WORLD have a responsibility to be ~ethical~, and tbh both inside & out of our working lives, we should be good people, no? like, obviously yes, it’s not good to be a dickhead. and just because you’re an artist, or ~contemporary fine art practitioner~ that doesn’t give u the agency or the identity to be emboldened into Dickhead behaviour. like, don’t move mad, be kind to bees, tell ur mam u love her, fuck.
A: A lot of your writing focuses on the responsibilities of galleries and museum, and distributions of fundings or major awards like the Turner Prize. Could you talk a little bit about the importance of the climate within the university reflecting the outside world and events?
Z: ugh, so i see it like this. the university is a weird lil microcosm. in the pipeline it goes: Academy -> Gallery -> Museum and that feels like a nice neat linear way to describe the way these institutions interact w each other. so anything fucked up going on inside the gallery/museum kinda comes from somewhere. where did these ppl learn that it’s ok to utilise and instrumentalise black suffering? or where did Lucia Diega learn that it was ok to engage w fascists/be a literal fascist? maybe not directly from the Academy, but i do believe that the Academy has a responsibility to not sanction or (in their silence) be complicit in right-wing views expressed by their students. the point is though, that when universities encounter weird awkward situations like that; like when a BA Fine Art student displayed a painting of ~muslim male~ bodies hanging above a crowd (titled: 'In the Muslim world, all gay men are well-hung'; later changed to ‘Strange Fruit’), at the 2017 Central St Martin’s degree show, despite outcry from students and staff alike, that the work was islamaphobic, distasteful n deeply deeply violent, it was allowed to remain in the degree show by the head of Art. in that moment, the university chose a side in an ideological battle, and then instrumentalised the ~neutral~ concept of free-speech to display a work that would only make marginalised students feel uncomfortable to speak in the first place. My point there, is that universities seem to mirror institutions outside of them, where they value freedom of speech, in a liberal, centrist way; the speech of people who are already hegemonicaly loud and vocally dominant. There is little to no protection for the marginalised identities within the university, because they do not speak in a language that is comfortable for the powers that be. Maybe this is now like,,, Spivak, can the subaltern speak… as much as i hate referencing. point is, the university not only perpetuates but replicates and enacts systemic violence upon the marginalised ppls that walk through their doors. the same way the Tate, the V&A, all these other bloody institutions are mirroring and reproducing the same systemic racism and ableism and all the isms that constitute the working and social worlds. bc they make up part of those worlds all the same. that’s how these structures are turned into machinery to only enact systemic racism. it’s a sunday afternoon, i now no longer know what i’m on about. sksksk
A: Student cohorts are increasingly more diverse - could you provide your interpretation, and some examples, of cultural exchange versus cultural appropriation?
Z: in short, no. i think white makers should never try, or justify a case to want to try, to depict subjects of colour. i think it’s bad and wrong and weird also tbh. so cultural exchange feels like a weird term to utilise here in this question, bc it feels loaded, or predicated on a hypothetical. like, there are wider systems of power that exist between people interacting w each other as teeny individuals. so, it doesn’t matter rly, how well-intentioned or sincere a maker is. if they are speaking from a privileged identity, they should do more to consider how their making has the potential to re-enact violence.
A: Also, how could universities facilitate healthy mechanisms of the former?
Z: i mean, what does healthy cultural exchange even look like? like i think we need to answer that first n then this question becomes super easy to answer. in my mind there’s nO such thing that exists in any model rn. i have never seen it n,,, tbh i am TIRED of white men playing devil’s advocate in tryna prove to me that there is! it is literally IMPOSSIBLE w the global historical (and contemporary) fact of colonialism, n its accompanying violence n theft of resources, to constitute a model of cultural exchange that can be classified as healthy (so: equitable to all parties).
A: So when I use the term 'cultural exchange' I think I really mean, fostering an environment of learning and critical dialogue which values cultural parity, honest interest, and unprejudiced engagement. An environment where the institution takes it upon itself to tackle any present prejudices against the practices of minorities whose work explores identity, and where this work is valued and seen as worthy of a diverse public, not just a public that shares the identity of the maker.
Z: i think,,, ye the institution is deffo in a place to hammer out these micro aggressions (and macro aggressions) of white students not rly caring about work that addresses identity; i j think that representation of these marginalised aesthetics & narratives should belong to those from that exact marginalized background;;; n maybe that co-option in the service of ~understanding~ n ~empathy~ aren’t rly ever as sincere as they appear to be.
A: My final question relates to the cross-section between art and the non-artist. You dedicate a long entry to reviewing Forensic Architecture’s nomination for the Turner. It seems we arrived at a point where some of the most interesting art is made by collectives featuring archeologists, scientists and architects, rather than the typically solitary (or at least perceived as solitary) artist. What does that tell us about the state of contemporary art?
Z: that it’s boring; made by boring people, who’ve been taught by boring-er old-er people, n looked at by people so mind-numbingly boring it literally makes me wana tear my eyebrows out. i am so bored by most art. i care so much more about Sidhu Moose Wala’s new album, or Ranvir n Dips’ wedding, or literally every single restaurant on Ealing Road/Southall Broadway. i care more about culture that is affective, n most art is just There. it doesn’t change or colour the air around it. i don’t care about dusty people who don’t moisturise, n their academic posturing. i don’t care about theory, hypotheticals, questions and masturbatory symposiums on ~what can the art world do to…~. i care about art writing and art making that addresses the Outside. I don’t wana live in an insular bubble, i want my mum to be able to understand what i do bc it affects things she knows about too! I want to fucking FEEL something! that’s what it says.