~The Problem with Representation~


This has been a text I didn’t think I needed to write, tbqh. But I wrote the Problem with Diaspora Art last year and now that I am looking to fill in some of the gaps / plot holes, I think the problem with representation - what I’m seeking 2 address in this text - is maybe a fundamental base I’ve been taking for granted. How do you build up to a climax without the boring slog of endless chatter and foundational droning? This is that fundamental. SO - yes - maybe you will read this & think ‘how fucking trite, you’ve said this like 72 times already’, but I think the way the white pube has always been, has been like… Like we have no manifesto, no fixed didactic positions that are universally applicable, no rules or regulations, no bosses, no bedtimes. The only thing we are bound by is what we have written - and it’s only a portion of that we still actually stand by. I am writing this text to plant it in the ground because i want to stand by it. So no one can tell me I j chat shit on twitter. I also publish the shit I chat. Ha ha.

I think I want to start where I left the Problem with Diaspora Art: a call to action to recollectivise our understanding of race/racism & labour, for fear that our focus on individual experiences is symptomatic of a neoliberalisation of the politics of race, and so suffers an inadequacy in addressing the role of systems and institutions. I think now, there is more to be said before a call to action. If we are to organise I think a groundwork for understanding needs to be laid down. Because if neoliberalism is the sticky web that has come at the touching point of capitalism & liberal free market ideology; then we must kinda assess what that web sprawls across. We, TWP, are often touted as bearers of the END of STUFFY CONSERVATISM in the arts; but I don’t think that’s true at all. It’s at least not how we see ourselves. I think, in the arts at least, stuffy conservatism ended a while ago, it was just replaced by neoliberalism.

There is a fundamental problem with the politics of representation. This crisis of not seeing ourselves - as people of colour in the arts - is a real problem! It just now exists within a politic that creates space for a VERY STICKY floor upon which neoliberal germs can grow.

In 2017 Riz Ahmed delivered a speech to Parliament. >>> While speaking about the need for diversity in culture, he makes compelling points about how framing ~diversity~ the way we frame it currently positions it as fundamentally tolerable but not entirely necessary, a take it or leave it, an add-on to your main order of ‘all-white period dramas.’ Now my personal distaste for him aside, his speech is eloquent, compelling but also fundamentally missing a wider rigorous analysis of the flatlay. His end goal is maybe a harder line for representation in media & culture, maybe sometimes brown muslims tell their own stories, but that is the sum all of his demands. I also think his position is the position that is most visible in the discourse around representation. I would like to zoom out a bit further; what if diversity & inclusion itself was not just necessary, of key importance, but actually part of a rigorous systemic change that pulled out the very roots of the problem.

The issue with us, as ~diverse~ publics, seeking representation as a singular end goal, is that it is fundamentally a liberal position. That is: it does not seek to overhaul, change, disrupt or dismantle. Rather to preserve; to move within the current structures that exist, that it recognises as broken, exploitative and oppressive, and expects to have a minority of that already excluded minority succeed within these busted frameworks. It does not look to change for all, only for a few. In forcing an excluded minority to funnel through the existing structures around us, this system ensures an assimilation into the cultural values that created the existing structures, and precludes those unwilling to buy into this assimilationist narrative from succeeding within it. In short; it believes in exceptionalism. The institution ensures its survival at all costs by absorbing the critique that hits it, bc it can point to a few success stories that have conformed to its requirements. This drive for representation within that system runs off of a politic of lack, and in that lack, it opens the door to neoliberal ideologies; of creating new markets to exploit and harvest for value. In our quest for representation and visibility through existing structures and channels, we will see ourselves consumed as a sellable commodity ourselves. I think. I know I kinda sound like a mad conspiracy theorist, but bear with me.

What is representation and what does it do? For brown and black artists, it is often as simple as seeing shows by artists that look like us. Representation is: Soul of a Nation, Frank Bowling @ Tate Britain, Basquiat @ the Barbican. I pointed to this in the Problem with Diaspora Art; how, for me, these shows fall flat in their intended gesture, bc. Well - they are exactly that::: GESTURES. Gestures towards a never-fulfilled promise of a more progressive system, but gestures nonetheless. While they are enjoyable moments for me personally - I enjoyed seeing every single one of those shows - there is also a valid structural critique that remains the same for all of them. I feel like I’m going mad u kna, j writing the same thing again and again. Most recently: I wrote about this 2 weeks ago in my review of Ima-Abasi Okon’s show @ Chisenhale, and how it feels like the gallery itself isn’t really a welcoming home for the works of artists of colour. I wrote about this in my review of fucking Aladdin, when I said: 'REPRESENTATION IS A FALSE PROMISE, IT CANNOT EVER BE THE SUM ALL OF OUR EXPECTATIONS AND DEMANDS FOR INCLUSION AND EQUALITY, WE MUST ALSO ADDRESS OUR MATERIAL CONDITIONS BY DEMANDING A CRUMB OF EQUITY IN THE MEANS OF PRODUCTION’. In this way, while representation is often reduced down to seeing ourselves in the gallery: in the makers that are shown and the depictions of people in the works that are displayed, I think this is only the tip of what really it should mean. When I say: address material conditions with equity in the means of production, I mean: black & brown people in all areas of the arts, not just where they’re most visible. In senior curatorial roles, on the press team, in outreach, as relationship managers at the arts council - deciding who gets funding to do what, on the arts council boards - shaping 10 year strategy. This is ONLY equity if the people in these positions are then afforded the space, power and understanding to voice their opinions, make decisions without needless reproach. If they have the access to funds to actually do the good work they want to do! (funding/access to ample funding is, in many ways, a solid form of equity in the arts!) If they aren’t outnumbered, not alone as a brown/black face in a white room. By itself, ye I’ll admit, representation can be powerful: it can sow ideas as seeds, it’s not a fix, but it can ignite something, momentum can happen & be built from these representational moments. The fucking million £ question is: WHERE DOES OR WHERE CAN THAT MOMENTUM GO ONCE IT HAS BEEN BUILT? Representation is great, cool, nice one. But I really don’t think it means anything beyond a gesture unless it has a backbone. Not just throughout the institutions we have to move in and out of every day, but also in the wider structures of the art world that are less visible than the institution.

Apologies, because now I think I have to speak in political abstracts. I think now I need to circle back to representational politics as a liberal position. Because while, yes, a gallery run for & by people of colour is a great plan: it kinda already exists. Iniva exists as this exact thing & still the same problems persist outside of it. Black & brown directors of institutions exist, & still the same problems persist. Black & brown people work at the Tate, & still the same problems persist. The Tate could put on a whole year of only artists of colour, & still the same problems would persist. Racism is like fucking THRUSH, you need a multiple pronged solution and it might still come back in 3 months when you use a fancy scented showergel. It will never end until you find the root, destroy all the horcruxes (fucking hell). It is slippery because it is pervasive. It will never end until our very society itself is restructured. Fuck.ing.hell. So then, without sliding into a pessimism from which we cannot emerge, this becomes a wider, more political problem. The politics of representation then sits within a larger circle of the problem with Liberalism.

I think I want to break it down so we can all see the overlap/engulfment so maybe then a methodology for a solution can emerge. First watch these videos below by a lovely lad called Philosophy Tube on what liberalism is, because I am quite frankly, NOT CLEVER ENOUGH to j know off the top of my head.

What is Liberalism? UwU

Ok so, that nice lad off YouTube has explained that liberalism, as an ideology, has a few main components that can’t really be negotiated. I wana translate them over into art-world-speak so we can just remove all the wiggle room for wilful misunderstanding.

He mentioned Freedom™ & Liberty™ for all (except ‘all’ does have a few exceptions, mainly dependent on if it will endanger profitability). In the art world, this means on the whole only the moderate, the centrist succeeds. People who point at the gaps & offer a way to plug them momentarily are allowed to succeed, meaning any fix is only momentary in itself. The institution is unwilling to change and, by doing so, endanger itself. It never invites in a person that acts as a legitimate threat, and if it does, they are either neutralised (through assimilation), never given enough agency or power to affect the change needed, or handed distraction after distraction to keep them busy & away from the work that needs to be done. More often than not, it is the second of those options; there are so many sincerely radical creatives of colour in institutional jobs, doing good work, but without being afforded the support or seriousness they need to make a lasting impact. Their freedom & liberty to do a job well or create long-term infrastructural change is obscured by the institution’s own efforts to self-preserve by refusing its own dismantling. Freedom & liberty is only extended so long as we all play by the prescribed rules and work within the preexisting structures without questioning or pushing up against the walls presented to us. We are not afforded the luxury of being unruly.

Philosophy Tube also mentioned Individualism™; ‘liberalism says that when we look at a society, the units of measurement we should be using are the individual. We analyse a society in terms of the decisions that individuals make, we describe society as basically a collection of individuals, and when we explain what happens in a society the kinds of explanations we will give will reference individuals.’ By reducing the problems that lead to the point of crisis we are at in the arts to a problem on an individual scale, we allow ourselves to see these problems in vacuums. Perhaps we isolate the crisis in the arts of artists of colour being woefully underfunded, underserved and overexploited as one that is fixable singularly by individual moments of representation? Perhaps we think we can do one big Lubaina Himid show, get her nominated for the turner prize, and that alone fixes a whole lifetime of work that went largely underacclaimed. Unappreciated as it should have been. Perhaps the individualistic liberal framework through which we view the politics of representation allows us to believe that that turner prize win alone fixes the material conditions that meet artists of colour everyday. Perhaps we allow ourselves to be blind to the systemic failures and frameworks at play that are: bigger, smoother, better-funded, more entrenched than us all. It allows us to have one splash of success and then expects us to go back to where we were. Need I remind you that Anish Kapoor won in 1991, and although an asian man & a black woman experience very different levels of institutional violence (political blackness been broke, we know), nothing changed in the in-between, between 1991 & 2017. Arguably, material conditions for artists of colour got worse. This weird sticky sitch where we think one win for one person is enough to tide us over is, imo, largely responsible for the cycles of erasure of the contribution of artists of colour, and this feeling of constant arrival to the arts that I described in Does Art History Matter[?] I think that in itself holds the potential for a solution, that I brush over in that text: ‘The power of remembrance and intergenerational learning cannot and will not ever be a useful tool if it is deployed on its own. We need to accompany this and use our critical/analytical & strategic minds & look closer at how we can best reform/repurpose/destroy the institutions that currently stand as symbols of inequity.’ Maybe a good strategy to start with is to hold on to our own archives and gatekeep our own history. Maybe then it’d be less ripe for co-option and redeployment as novelty or as what is intended to appear like a radical gesture. Maybe then we would be more wary of moments like the Big Summer Shows & collectively hold these institutions to account to follow up on fulfilling their promises of a more progressive politic, and we could have some real sway in what should come next as afterburn or change to these trails that are sincerely blazed by artists like Lubaina!

Capitalism? MORE LIKE CRAPITALISM! AMIRIGHT!?! For the purposes of brevity, and for the sake of all our sanity, I’ll keep this brief & tight. Beyond representation, this vacuum negates the larger political structures the art world rests in. We all felt a wave of success when Yana Peel resigned from her position as CEO of the Serpentine; but she leaves behind her a number of other powerful funders with ties to unethical sources to their funding. Not least among them: the Zabludowicz collection, whose family money has historically come from Poju’s links to the arms trade, and he currently has business interests in an illegal West Bank settlement. Poju is also the founding director of BICOM: a lobbying group 'dedicated to creating a supportive environment for Israel in Britain’, that has been embroiled in uncomfortable public moments with both David Cameron & Benjamin Netanyahu. While those higher up in the art world might claim that all money is dirty, it is only now becoming a topic of conversation in the arts: do we have to accept oil companies funding major public exhibitions? These issues are all systemic, part of a larger structure and machinery that we are unable to dismantle if we are wilfully ignorant to it. When the Tate dropped BP as a funder, it was largely looked at cynically (for good reason) since they still accept donations as cash or as artworks for their collection from a number of nefarious sources. But it did show that if people make enough of a fuss; it is possible. I hear that institutions like the ICA have ethics documents that govern their conduct regarding interactions with funders and who they can & cannot accept funding from (apparently the ICA will not accept funding from oil companies bc of what’s written in that ethics document). There is a groundswell for change on this end, but for it to constitute a dismantling it needs to go deeper and not just skim the surface of blacklisting oil companies and arms dealers.

Funding is such an integral part of success or even just stability in the arts; the above two problems really pale in comparison. Many of the sincerely radical poc creatives doing day-job-work in institutions often only do so because any independent side projects/passion projects they do are unsustainable full-time, or actually still struggling to get off the ground without access to adequate funding. DIY life is hard, but we, TWP, amongst others have been very loud about the fact that doing it yourself is a minefield where you struggle against the very sustainability of what you’re doing. Many of us are ouchea tryna actualise the change we need to see, materialise a solution w only new moon manifestation prayers and sincere will, because no other support exists - especially in the capital - outside of the institutions and their requirements that you do visible work within them for less pay than your labour deserves. Material conditions for artists and creative labourers of colour are worsening because our access to arts funding has been one of the hardest hit by Tory austerity cuts. Not just funding pots themselves, but the increase in tuition fees sees a barrier to access for those even looking to study in the arts, when the cost of living is sky-rocketing & wages are plateauing, you cannot live on the London Living wage in London quite frankly - just living in London requires a full-time job with a 5-figure salary for you to be remotely not-incredibly-precarious. We all know it is not just people of colour, but also other communities of the most marginalised in our society that are hit the hardest and are consistently facing hurdles that threaten to push them out of the arts. If funding weren’t as gatekept, if universal basic income existed, if housing was seen as a human right rather than an asset we must spend our entire working lives working towards only to die, penniless and alone, we might have a fucking chance of evening the way the scales tip. In the in between, we are all just treading water, stealing moments to make incredible art under the circumstances, side hustling (as we @ TWP do; this isn’t our full time job & we both have part-time stable-r jobs on the side while we live with our parents!) and ultimately too burnt out to present or organise a significant challenge to the institution when they come knocking to exploit us. We are also j unable to mobilise on any and most dreams to build better systems bc of the dominance of so many other larger players that gatekeep access, funds & space. Access to so many of these things rely on relationships with people, funders and institutions that have ulterior motives that are threatened by our will to displace the current system and make it fairer. Where institutions like the Tate, or literally any other NPO, could be investing sincere time, effort, & funds into development or support for the artists they work with, they favour fleeting contact & visible output over what could be truly most useful. Any movement that does happen is rare, should be celebrated as an incredible achievement. But it is quite frankly not enough to be the radical change we must seek.

And so then,, IN CONCLUSION, this feels so fucking nihilistic as a text for me to write,, FUCKING HELL. But I think then this pins down the problem with the politics of representation as a problem with the liberal position; right? To reiterate what I’ve said earlier on in this text: this now becomes a context that runs on a politic of lack. Instead of looking to what is there, looking to nurture, support or invest in the development of poc artistic talent; this representational politic scRAMBLES to find the nearest plug to block the gap. We are often pushed into institutions under situations that do not suit, under the guise that it’s just good to be doing shit, without any thought for how this could be better. Fundamentally, it actually shouldn’t be OUR JOB to think ‘how could this be improved?’ That is the job of these curators & programmers; but (to be generous) they are often working on projects that are equally underfunded by the institution they’re working for, undervalued, and only ever supported gesturally - never seriously or sincerely. Those higher up, in a position to create the change we seek, are often too comfortable within the structure they’re on top of to bother with doing the work of dismantling. They are of course, distinctly aware of the problems that exist, aware of what they could do, but inert in the face of our urgency - happy to wave it all away as ‘it’s just the way it is, nothing to be done’. On all sides, the tide of briskness just swells to meet us, and I really truly believe one day it will rupture. This drive to DO; to be productive or visible, over being generative thoughtful or even potentially careful/caring; this feeds into the politic of lack that rly only serves the institution rather than us. We are here! WE’VE ALWAYS BEEN HERE! We cannot allow ourselves to be opened up for the harvesting of our value, we cannot let this neoliberal institutional model turn our fear of scarcity into a new market for it to exploit! I think I’m sounding more and more like a crackpot, but wallahi if we keep hurtling towards it without interruption, one day this representational economy’s bubble will burst and we will be back to square 1, and I will cry bc I told you so. The end-goal of this system is people like the Saj & Priti Patel being in cabinet, making decisions that will LITERALLY KILL PEOPLE, and idiots like Nihal saying, ‘great moment for representation!’ when truly nothing has changed for anyone, now violence just has a brown face.

We must push beyond this feeling of just being glad to be there! Both poc artists and white curators also: we can reform these institutions if we look hard enough to see them clearly for what they are, shirk this feeling that we alone cannot make a change (bc if we all fucking think like that, of course we can’t). If we don’t, we are just commodities being circulated, and any agency we might think we have will soon be held up to the light (n like a fake twenny) we’ll be able to see right through it. We must invest our time in not just liberatory language, but liberatory actions. We have models of practice that predate neoliberalism & its leakage into the arts, our ancestors before us had solutions that are obscured, and we do not have to start again. Maybe instead of buying into the neoliberal lie that we need to build communities of strength (falling into capitalism’s expectations of bigger, better, more visible output & economies of social capital being laundered into financial capital, via the institution), we avert our expectations to communities of vulnerability. We make space for care, recognise that vulnerability in the identification of our mutual fallibility is the beginning point for solidarity (a la trade union), and from there we can truly form a collective movement that can hold bigger, slicker, more powerful machines to account. We need to recollectivise our understanding of these problems, wallah they do not start or end with us, we do not experience them in isolation and the sooner we wise up to the way we are deployed for other people’s gain the sooner we will be able to have our own hands on the wheel. To abundance, to plenty & to enjoyment: ameen.

a man sits at a desk on a college campus with a big white sign at the front saying change my mind, and zarina has edited the subject so it says ‘representation is a neoliberal lie, change my mind’