If you’re looking for feminist superheroes, look no further than the Guerrilla Girls. These gorilla-masked feminist avengers — anonymous activists who work under the assumed names of dead female artists — tackle sexism and racism in the art world and beyond, through poster campaigns, billboards, books and presentations.
Launched in 1985, the Guerrilla Girls’ first campaign was born out of frustration with the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition “An International Survey of Painting and Sculpture,” which, though supposedly a roundup of the world’s best contemporary art, turned out to be 92 per cent male and 100 per cent white.
More than 20 years later, founding members Frida Kahlo and Kathe Kollwitz are still hard at work, lecturing at campuses and museums, writing a book about women in Hollywood and, of course, stirring shit up in the art world. They’ll be speaking in Toronto tonight at 7pm, at a lecture presented by the Ryerson Student-Run Lecture Series (info here). The event is sold-out, but free rush tickets may be available at the door.
I had the chance to chat with Kahlo for an article appearing in today’s EYE WEEKLY. For the full text of our conversation, click the “More” link below.
You’re speaking tonight at the convention centre. What do you have in store for Torontonians?
What we’re going to do — myself and Kathe Kollwitz, who is the other remaining founding member of the Guerrilla Girls that still work within our group — we’re going to be talking about a lot of work we did recently about the art world and also our book on female stereotypes, Bitches, Bimbos and Ballbreakers and we’re going to be doing a powerpoint presentation, we’re going to be reading love letters and hate mail that we’ve gotten, we’re going to show a DVD and we’ll probably do a skit with an audience member and we’ll have a Q&A with the audience afterwards, so they can bring their own issues, they can complain and they can do whatever they want.
You mentioned that you’re one of the founding members of the group. When did the project start and what has it been like being a Guerrilla Girl for so long?
1985, so we’re going on 23 or 24 years. It keeps getting more and more interesting — it’s hard to give up. When we first started out, we were just pissed off, angry, and we just did something. And the world kinda responded to it, so we kept doing more, doing more, doing more. In my wildest dreams, I couldn’t have imagined my life taking the direction it’s taken. I never could’ve imagined doing it this long. But it kept getting more and more interesting. And we’re in a weird position right now because the very institutions we started out attacking are suddenly embracing us and asking us to do projects for them. It’s agonizing how we can keep our critical edge in the midst of it. But the fact of our anonymity helps that out, the fact that we wear these crazy masks, and it’s quite a thrill to criticize an institution from the inside.
Can you tell us about some of the institutions you’re working with?
We were invited to do a project in the 2005 Venice Biennale. We were invited by one of the first women directors ever of the Aperto section of the Biennale [which explores emerging art]. For 110 years, they didn’t have any women curators of those large shows. She invited us to do something and she also encouraged us to make some trouble, so we looked at the history of the Biennale, we declared it the feminist Biennale — why? Because there were more women than ever. We looked at the historical museums of Venice to find out that most of the women artists were in the basement. So we made the demand that we want more women on top — that the women artists should be freed from the basement.
We did something last year at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. They were not willing to let us be in an exhibition, but they did organize the first ever panel at the Museum of Modern Art on art and feminism. And I’m not sure that it was something they were really excited about doing. There was just one very generous individual who funded the whole thing and just pushed it. And much to MOMA’s surprise, it was the best attended conference ever in the history of MOMA. So I’m sure they were eating a little bit of crow there. It would’ve been nice if the director had decided to come, but at the last minute, he had more pressing things to do. So what we did was a little museum quiz about certain instances and happenings in MOMA and other New York City museums that we ‘d like to have questioned ethically.
You said your anonymity sometimes helps you get away with stuff. I’m curious what it’s like for you as an activist working anonymously — how it affects your sense of satisfaction or even the ownership you take over the project.
Well, ownership is another thing. There are personal attitudes about ownership and there are legal attitudes about ownership and I don’t think that the anonymity really affects that. It just allows us to criticize something and the criticism is kind of pure, it’s not personal because it isn’t attached to an individual. So that does allow us to say it without retaliation. It also, I think, makes it seem a little more important because it’s not some cranky, whiny, complaining women. It’s a feminist masked avenger.
I would assume that you’re very proud of your work, and I wonder if you ever have the urge to tell people, “This is what I’m doing,” as opposed to it just being attributed to the group. Because I don’t know your name, I can’t ascribe to you the credit for the work you do.
There are a lot of art forms in the 21st century and also the 20th century that are collaborative. Film is the perfect example. There are lots of forms of contemporary visual art that are more collaborative, so it’s not new. This idea of being the lone genius is really an outdated, kind of modernist obsession, and usually coming from the mouths of men. (She laughs.) So that’s not a concern to us. Sure, it would be nice if it were attached to our names sometimes. It’s not easy to always live a life of Clark Kent, but on the other hand, we do have moles. There are people around who individually may know who we are. That sometimes helps to have secret contacts, and to bring people into our conspiracy.
Do the Guerrilla Girls hang out together without the masks?
Oh yes, we’re all good friends. We’re like one big happy dysfunctional family.
The Guerrilla Girls are famous for approaching activism in a way that’s smart, funny and attention-grabbing. Do you have advice for other women wanting to start up their own activist projects?
You’ve got to be really patient with yourself and you can’t solve all the problems of the world in a single action. You have to just pick away at it — see what works, see what doesn’t, continue to do what works. We’ve been at this 23 years and there are lots of ideas we’ve had that we’ve had to throw away — lots of things that we thought were great but in the end didn’t work. So you have to think about what end product you want. If you just want to feel good, you can make angry art and feel good about that, but we’ve always wanted to transform, to change people’s minds. Early on, we started using humour as a way of making us feel better. When you mock the force that you think oppresses you, you have some power over that force. But what we soon discovered is you can also use humour as a hook. If you can get someone who disagrees with you to laugh at a situation, you’ve bored a hole in their brain. You can say a lot of controversial things with humour that you can’t say straight out. So we found that it’s kind of a transformative tool that we use. We get people to laugh at what we’re doing. We look at things in a weird way. We don’t just point at something and say, “This is bad.” We twist something around and ask some crazy question: “Do women have to be naked to get into the Metropolitan Museum?” And then we have stats about women artists in the modern section versus the percentage of female nudes, which are two different things ¬— they are tangentially related, they’re the same idea of the male gaze and patriarchy, but we don’t really say that. We let a lot of conclusions happen inside the brains of the viewer.
I know that a lot of Shameless staff and readers look up to the Guerrilla Girls as people they admire. Who do you admire?
Well, certainly all the feminist art historians and scholars that went before us and feminist activists of the 1970s and 1980s and those who are continuing to work. Certainly the activists from the ’60s who used humour and street theatre — Abbie Hoffman certainly comes to mind and the Yippies. And also the suffragists and all of the feminists who were working in a time when it wasn’t so accepted to say, you know, “I work the same job as you, I should get the same amount of money.” That was a really heroic and courageous stand for a lot of women to make in the 19th and early-20th century.
Recently, in The Globe and Mail, there was an article with the headline, “It’s official: feminism is out of style.” And, of course, this stuff comes up again and again in the mainstream media. We’re told that feminism is dead, that it’s out of fashion. How do you respond to idiotic media like that?
Um: ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. Well, it’s so misguided and I think you need to examine the agenda of the person who wrote that. Fifty years of feminism is not going to reverse 50 years of patriarchy, that’s for sure. But there is something tremendously threatening about feminism, because it goes right to the heart of many intimate relationships. And it’s hard for guys to give up power or to share it. Who wants to give up something that’s been yours for thousands of years? And I think a lot of it is unconscious. Until global women’s rights are considered human rights, feminism is absolutely necessary. I would say that’s a xenophobic statement, to say that feminism is out of style. All they have to do is look at Africa, the Middle East and Asia to see what women are doing to gain freedom from sexual abuse, from sexual harassment, to have the right to inherit property, to own the fruits of their own labous. I mean, it’s an ignorant statement.
Absolutely. I can’t get over the number of people who think we’re in a post-feminist era. Just the expression “post-feminist” makes me antsy.
Well, you know what they say: I’ll be a post feminist—
—in the post-patriarchy. Exactly. I’m curious, too, if there are any new campaigns coming up for the Guerrilla Girls or any hot topics you’re looking to address.
Well, funny that you ask. Right now, I’m in Los Angeles. I’m here for six months with Kathe Kollwitz, who’s lived here a long time, and we’re working on a new book, Girls In The Wood. And it sort of grew out of our last book about female stereotypes, which sort of grew out of our book before that on women artists in history. We realized that there are many stereotypes about women artists in the culture at large, but those stereotypes, when they’re applied to women, were just unacceptable. A woman couldn’t behave like Jackson Pollock or Pablo Picasso and not be institutionalized. So that’s one of the reasons we did the stereotypes book. We wanted to investigate stereotypes to see how they limit women, or how they help women, or how we could ignore them. And as we were looking at stereotypes, we realized how the media is like one of the biggest manufacturers of stereotypes going. And wouldn’t it be interesting to look at the situation of women in the media, meaning the entire of the entertainment business. Because even though it likes to think of itself as being very liberal, very edgy, very up-to-the-minute, if you examine the position of women in that world, and also the image of women that that world creates, it’s stultifying. So we wanted to do a send-up of women in the entertainment business. It’s going to be Guerrilla Girls do Hollywood: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Girls in The Wood. So that’s what we’re doing.
We got a little sidetracked a few weeks ago because we keep getting called back to the art world. Eli Broad, who’s just a super-super-rich art patron in Los Angeles just gave $50 million to the LA County Musuem of art, which is, in fact, a public museum, unlike many other museums in the United States, which are private. He gave $50 million to build a building with his name all over it, then he reneged on a promise to donate his collection of contemporary art to the museum. But he did show a selection of his collection in the first exhibition in this new building. What was shocking about it was that there were 30 artists in this first and they were 97 per cent white and 87 per cent male. Unbelievable in a city as diverse as Los Angeles and especially in a museum that’s supported to a large extent by tax dollars. So we did a letter-writing campaign on our website, by email, we encouraged people to send this tongue-in-cheek letter to Eli, asking him to rectify the situation immediately. And apparently he’s very angry! It got mentioned in the New York Times two days in a row and in the LA Times, every major reviewer who reviewed the museum made that comment that it was a little skewed. So we’re really happy that with something as simple as a — well, we did work hard on it — but we sent out an email to maybe 500 or 600 people on an email list and it just grew. It had that kind of effect. I dn’t think Eli’s going to have another show without showing a few more women artists and artists of colour.
We also did something last spring: the Washington Post asked us if we’d like to do a spread for a section they did on art and feminism. We did this sleazy tabloid, called the “It’s Not OK Guerrilla Girls Scandal Rag” and it’s a parody of a magazine. We had this image of women artists locked in a prison and it said “Horror in the national mall, thousands of women locked in DC basements. Why does the macho art world want to keep them out?” The idea being that, again, even when museum owns art by women, they rarely show it — that was what we found in the major public museums in Washington, DC. We always back it up with information: the National Gallery was shockingly Eurocentric and white male and when the Washington Post called to fact-check the fact that according to the National Gallery — we got all our information from them — there was not one single African-American artist on exhibit at the museum at that time… When the Washington Post called to fact-check, the museum freaked out and over night, decided to reinstall a sculpture by Martin Puryear, so that instead of zero, they have one! So it went from 100 per cent white to 99.9 per cent white! They think that’s better!
I think we’re sort of watching the art world and right now it’s all about money and super-wealthy people just buying art as status. That’s a really lousy way to write the history of our visual culture.
What’s in the future for you? You said you’ve been a member for over 20 years. How long can you see yourself doing this?
Well, I don’t know. Every time something makes me mad, it’s great to think of something to do about it. So I don’t know. I can’t answer that. I think people underestimate the attention span of activists.