Guerrilla Girls: Creative feminist activists
- Published: 10 July 2010
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For 25 years an anonymous group of masked female avengers have exposed sexism and racism in art, politics and film. Using humour and creative flair, the Guerrilla Girls – many of whom go by the names of dead female artists – have created hundreds of posters and stickers, as well as books and printed projects. They’ve also initiated actions that include raiding the Sundance Film Festival. Want to know more? Check out the Q&A below:
Who are the Guerrilla Girls?
We're a bunch of anonymous females who take the names of dead women artists as pseudonyms and appear in public wearing gorilla masks. We have produced posters, stickers, books, printed projects, and actions that expose sexism and racism in politics, the art world, film and the culture at large.
We use humor to convey information, provoke discussion, and show that feminists can be funny. We wear gorilla masks to focus on the issues rather than our personalities. Dubbing ourselves the conscience of culture, we declare ourselves feminist counterparts to the mostly male tradition of anonymous do-gooders like Robin Hood, Batman, and the Lone Ranger.
The mystery surrounding our identities has attracted attention. We could be anyone; we are everywhere.
How did your group get started?
Kathe Kollwitz: In 1985, The Museum of Modern Art in New York opened an exhibition titled An International Survey of Painting and Sculpture. It was supposed to be an up-to-the minute summary of the most significant contemporary art in the world. Out of 169 artists, only 13 were women. All the artists were white, either from Europe or the US.
That was bad enough, but the curator, Kynaston McShine, said any artist who wasn't in the show should rethink “his” career. And that really annoyed a lot of artists because obviously the guy was completely prejudiced.
Women demonstrated in front of the museum with the usual placards and picket line. Some of us who attended were irritated that we didn't make any impression on passersby.
Meta Fuller: We began to ask ourselves some questions. Why did women and artists of color do better in the 1970's than in the 80's? Was there a backlash in the art world? Who was responsible? What could be done about it?
What did you do?
Frida Kahlo: We decided to find out how bad it was. After about five minutes of research we found that it was worse than we thought: the most influential galleries and museums exhibited almost no women artists.
When we showed the figures around, some said it was an issue of quality, not prejudice. Others admitted there was discrimination, but considered the situation hopeless. Everyone in positions of power curators, critics, collectors, the artists themselves passed the buck.
The artists blamed the dealers, the dealers blamed the collectors, the collectors blamed the critics, and so on.
We decided to embarrass each group by showing their records in public. Those were the first posters we put up in the streets of SoHo in New York.
Does anyone know who you really are?
What is your philosophy for making activist art?
We try to be different from the kind of political art that is angry and points to something and says “This is bad.” That's preaching to the converted. We want to be subversive, to transform our audience, to confront them with some disarming statements, backed up by facts—and great visuals—and hopefully convert them.
We carefully craft everything we do. We try to twist an issue around and present it in a way that hasn't been seen before. We usually test-drive a project by showing it to a few people beforehand to gauge their response. We've also learned that focusing on one aspect of an issue is better than trying the change the whole world in a single work.
What role does humor play in your work?
We've discovered that ridicule and humiliation, backed up by irrefutable information, can disarm the powers that be, put them on the spot, and force them to examine themselves.
A few years ago, some new members joined who were impressed by our reputation but disagreed with our sense of humor. They wanted us to start organizing seminars and writing position papers. They lived out the stereotype of feminists with no sense of humor. We had to kiss them goodbye.
How has your work made a difference?
We never imagined that we would become a model for feminist activists and would become part of women's and gender studies curriculums all over the world!
Museums we once fingered for discrimination (and still do) have our posters in their collections. Libraries preserve portfolios of our posters in their archives. Our art history book, The Guerrilla Girls' Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art, has sold tens of thousands of copies and is still going strong! It's used as a textbook in colleges all over the world and has been translated into several languages.
We've been included in hundreds of art and feminist anthologies and even Gardner's Art Through the Ages, a standard art history text. It's our honest hope that all this attention to our work and the issues we raise adds up to changes for women artists and artists of color.
So, are things ok for women in the art world now?
Things are better now than they ever have been for women and artists of color and we have helped effect that change. Right now there is decent representation of women and artists of color at the beginning and emerging levels of the art world.
At the institutional level however, in museums, major collections and auctions sales, things are still pretty dismal for all but white guys.
We believe that the economics of the art market is responsible for this. As long as art costs a lot of money and can be owned and controlled by individual collectors, it will represent the values of those people, not the larger art audience or the culture at large. We are still condemning the art world for its lack of ethics, tokenism and other bad behavior.
Why did you stray from the art world into the worlds of politics, Hollywood and other issues?
Almost from the beginning, we did campaigns about homelessness, abortion, and war, among many other issues. We've never been systematic, we just go after one target after another. (There are plenty to choose from.)
Recently, we've been attacking the film industry for the pathetically low numbers of women and people of color behind the scenes. We're also working on more political posters, a body image campaign and an attack on the music industry.
Why bother to criticize the film industry?
There are lots of luscious babes on the screen in movies and TV, but those are about the only women to be found in the entertainment industry.
Behind the scenes there are a few tokens, but nowhere enough cinematographers, screenwriters, directors, camera operators, etc., who are female and of color. We believe that any mass art form that discriminates to that degree should take a long, hard look at itself.
We also think that moviegoers should start a rebellion at the box office, or at the very least, download our stickers and put them up in movie theater bathrooms!
What happens when you go to film festivals and what was it like to raid Sundance?
Is was a real rush to work behind the scenes at Sundance, putting up our stickers on bulletin boards, in bathrooms and on movie posters. Then we'd hurry back to our hotel rooms and log on to Indie Wire to read what they were saying about our caper, then check our email for press responses.
Our stickers went all the way to New Zealand and we got an angry letter from a theater owner claiming that the film industry there wasn't nearly as bad as Hollywood. Great to snag him into the discourse!
Why don’t you have men in your group?
We realize that times have changed since 1985. Many more men now call themselves feminists (probably because they had mothers who were!) But we started out as a female empowerment group and we needed to be all-female for that.
We have arguments all the time now about accepting males and the jury's still out on it. But we have found some ways for guys to help us during our appearances. Come to one and see it!
What are you doing at the moment?
See our latest projects here. Our newest book, The Guerrilla Girls' Hysterical Herstory of Hysteria and How it Was Cured, from Ancient times Until Now, will be published in 2010, and we're doing more work about politics, culture and global women's issues.
How can I join or help the Guerrilla Girls?
We can't tell you how much we appreciate the support of so many of you around the world. As a small, anonymous group, we are usually not open to new members, but there are lots of ways you can participate and help.
First, we would love you to download our stickers and posters and put them up in your city.
Second, we ask that you use us as a model: think up your own name and your own outrageous identity and put up a couple of posters about an issue that is important to you. If it works, do it again. If it doesn't, do it again anyway.
Third, please email us and ask to join our mailing list for news of future actions. (We promise not to send stuff very often.)
Images courtesy of Guerrilla Girls website. Copyright Guerrilla Girls.