The Guerrilla Girls are taking over the Twin Cities in January. For 30 years these women activist artists have been exposing sexism, racism, gender issues and corruption in the art world using humor, graphic posters, billboards and live events. They choose to be anonymous, adopting names of women artists and wearing gorilla masks to hide their personal identities.
The Takeover includes art, performances, workshops, exhibitions and activism in collaboration with more than 20 Twin Cities arts organizations, educational art departments and individual artists.
The Minnesota Women’s Press recently spoke with the sub-dubbed Frida Kahlo about the Guerrilla Girls’ activism.
Minnesota Women’s Press: Why did the Guerrilla Girls get started?
Guerrilla Girls: We developed a new way in 1985 of talking to the public about issues in the art world when we realized that all the standard ways of complaining, protesting and making angry posters [about inequality of women and sexism in the arts] were not working. We keep trying to find new ways to deal with these issues and keeping our eyes open to new forms of exclusion.
We were surprised that things have gotten better in some ways but they have morphed into other issues, like tokenism and the glass ceiling for women in the arts.
The Guerrilla Girls confront sexism, racism, gender discrimination and corruption in the art world and beyond. We support Black Lives Matter, women’s, lesbian, gay, transgender and queer rights. These are the great human rights movements of our time. We think everyone should stand up for what they believe in – and do it in their own creative way.
How did humor find a place in your work?
If you look at our posters you’ll see we usually twist an idea around and present it in some new way that challenges people and gives them information to help them understand it better – and maybe even laugh at it.
We realized that if you can make [someone] laugh you kind of have a hook inside their brain to get their attention. If they would laugh at a situation maybe they would listen to you or consider your proposal. We were speaking to people who didn’t agree with us and that is why we said crazy things like, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?” We pointed out how many naked women’s bodies there are in museums but how few women artists.
How are gorilla masks and pseudonyms a part of your tactic?
To protect ourselves [professionally] we had to be anonymous, and then realized it was great power, too, because it depersonalized the issues and took the focus away from who we might be and put the focus on the issues.
You use the term “activist art.” What does that mean to you?
It is art that tries to change conditions in the world. It can take different forms and it can support all kinds of social issues. It is art that does more than sit in a museum and have people be in awe of it.
In those 30 years, how would you characterize change that has happened?
The issue of exclusion now is a no-brainer. No one running a gallery or museum would argue against including women artists and artists of color. But 30 years ago someone would have. They would have said women artists just don’t make work that rises to the standards of our history, … and we really know that that is not true.
There is a glass ceiling in the art world. We had no idea years ago that that would evolve, and tokenism would be something that institutions would adopt – that they would show one woman and one artist of color and then think that the problem was solved. Tokenism is not really a solution to the problem of exclusion. It is a continuation of the problem of exclusion.
The problem is really the system. It’s not that women are not empowered. We are empowered, we are trained, we are ready. There is something about the system that resists inclusion. It is hard for a museum or gallery to do a group show now without including some women and artists of color. But, women and artists of color don’t get solo shows the way white men do; they don’t get the prices that white men do.
When you see auction results and compare the difference of what women and artists of color get to what white men get paid, it is shocking. Like five cents on the dollar. That is a big issue now.
The structure that gives art value – the gallery structure, the market structure – is too powerful. It is run by a very homogeneous class of wealthy art collectors who are calling the shots on what is collected and remembered. We think that is a really lousy way to tell art history. If the history of literature were based on best sellers you’d get a very different kind of history of literature. But that’s what’s happening in the art world now because the museums are run by art collectors who are investors, so they give value to their art collections.
How do you reconcile support you are getting from the Walker Art Museum, in collecting the portfolio of your posters, with their being a large museum – being part of the establishment?
Museums have a lot of really good people working in them who are trying to change the system from the inside. That is necessary for social change – people trying to change things all over. It is a little disquieting to be embraced by the same institutions that we critique. We are very careful about only accepting invitations that give us complete freedom. We find it is interesting that there are some institutions that want to look at themselves critically.
Of course we are always trying to walk that edge and always trying to make sure that we are not being compromised. To be able to criticize an institution right inside the institution is a great opportunity. We take it seriously.
We’re working on an intervention at Mia called “Mysteries of the Mia,” which includes stats on diversity in the collection, and a piece about a transgender painter in 19th century France who had a permit from the police to dress as a man in public.
What is the push and pull in creating art for museum or for sale versus taking your art to the streets?
Each one of us has our own art life. Our Guerrilla Girl work is a collective work and we have developed a different market paradigm for this work by making appearances and doing workshops and giving lectures. It’s not the model that most artists pursue.
We like to have our posters hanging everywhere rather than just in the living rooms of art collectors. We figured out a new paradigm for that and we encourage other artists to try to find a new way of doing things and to subvert the system and to develop some alternatives – and, not take “no” for an answer.
Where do you see hope for change?
We see hope in women all over the world – and men too – rising up to confront human rights abuses against women and lesbians and gays and trans people everywhere. A lot of young artists are rejecting the art system as it is and making street art, protest art. That did not exist 30 years ago.
Is your work still needed today?
Sure. Absolutely – 150 years of feminism will not make up for centuries of patriarchy.
So many of the issues of gender are changing and evolving and we need all kinds of new vocabulary. We need to broaden ourselves to realize that feminism is not what it was in 1960 or 1970 or 1980 or 2000. There is a constantly evolving idea about equality in the world and we need to keep ourselves loose and listening to all of the members of the gender community.
We completely support the students who question genitalia versus gender. We brought up those issues in our earlier books, “The Guerrilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art” and “Bitches, Bimbos, and Ballbreakers, The Guerrilla Girls’ Illustrated Guide to Female Stereotypes.” Some of the vocabulary people used at the time seems a bit antiquated now, but you get the idea.
The truth is that artists don’t need to be Guerilla Girls to do the kind of work we are doing. They can form their own crazy individual activist groups and give themselves their own names. The world actually needs more feminist masked avengers than just the Guerilla Girls.
Find more at www.ggtakeover.com