In the Frame: Guerrilla Girls Rule! (Here's How to Follow Their Lead)
The campaign for gender equality in art is essentially spearheaded by the Guerrilla Girls, a network of anonymous activists who go by the names of great artists like Frida Kahlo. Their mantra is: "We could be anyone; we are everywhere." If you’ve ever wanted to challenge your local gallery on its lack of women behind the canvas, this is the organization to teach you how to get your point across. Start taking notes on the herstory and plotting your part in the revolution...
The Guerrilla Girls began their first campaign in 1985, as a reaction to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s supposedly comprehensive exhibition of modern art which put women firmly in the minority. Shamefully, out of 169 artists, only 13 were female (less than 9%). If you’ve ever been to the Met Museum then you’ll know just how vast the place is, and how extensive its shows are, which makes it even more irritating that an entire gender could be so marginalized. Taking a stand, women in gorilla suits decided that enough was enough, and thus began years of highly visual protest that combines shocking statistics and humour to generate interest. It should also be noted that the group refers to all marginalized groups with the term "women," and it prefers to use this blanket term rather than "women and artists of color," which makes them sound unnecessarily separate.
[Guerrilla Girls poster, 'Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into The Met Museum?', 1989]
If you’re a regular Bitch reader or you’re into art, you’re probably familiar with the Guerrilla Girls’ most famous poster, which explores the sheer audacity of the male gaze—again, the Met Museum is the target, with less than 3% of its Modern Art section attributed to women artists, but 83% of the nudes being female. The message is simple: Why are we accepted as subjects or objects, but we’re irrelevant or incapable as creatives in our own right? The public go to prominent museums and galleries expecting to be taught about entire genres and periods of art, yet they’re being given a skewed and inaccurate version of events. For me, this brings to mind the snobby behavior of the Paris Salon at the time of early Impressionism, when a ground-breaking new movement was ready to be unleashed on the world but it was rejected by the mainstream and completely ignored. It’s ironic that Impressionist exhibitions will now generate lots of money and most of us can’t imagine being taught about art without looking at Monet’s haystacks and water lilies. In the same way, it would be very satisfying to see major retrospectives by female artists getting the recognition they deserve, for example seeing Barbara Kruger’s "I Shop Therefore I Am" slogan being used as an example of genius rather than a throwaway statement.
[Guerrilla Girls poster, The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist, from 1988].
Prolific workers, the Guerrilla Girls have published several books over the years which show that they know exactly what they’re talking about. Their Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art is used as a textbook by some institutions, and it's a great read that features a mixture of prominent and less well known female artists. Crucially, most of the art doesn’t feel like it only applies to an audience of women, which is why I find it so frustrating when the few female-heavy exhibitions that do take place seem to be marketed to us (feminists and/or women) alone. I don’t want to be segregated and go to a women’s-only gallery to see a women’s-only show; I want to walk off the street and spontaneously view some great art that happens to be made by a non-male-identified artist. The Guerrilla Girls have tapped into this feeling, and they find it useful when their supporters determine if an artist seems to have been chosen for tokenism (look, she talks about past boyfriends and her kids!) or genuine talent. Bitches, Bimbos and Ballbreakers, the Guerrilla Girls' Illustrated Guide to Female Stereotypes is another book that has shaken up the art world, for its examination of typical groups of women. It’s clear that they’re not just laughing at men or criticizing them, as it’s just as important to "disempower the stereotypes" that are associated with their own gender.
Talking to Zoe Williams of the Guardian, the Guerrilla Girls summed up their battle strategy and their open determination to inspire people: "There's always room in the world for more masked feminist avengers."
I want to be in their gang. Don't you?
[Guerrilla Girls poster, 'Hormone Imbalance. Melanin Deficiency.' focusing on white male supremacism in art, 1993].
How can I help the Guerrilla Girls? [www.guerrillagirls.com]
- Join their email list for campaign updates. You’ll get to know what they will be focusing on next and you can then start thinking about how you want to tackle the mission.
- If you visit a gallery and you feel that there’s unfair favoritism towards white male artists there, say something. Give your feedback officially, whether that means filling out a comments form, writing a letter, or sending a direct tweet.
- Print off the posters and stickers published on the Guerrilla Girls website and distribute them in relevant places where people will take a second glance. When the group targeted the Sundance Film Festival for its lack of female directors, they chose bathrooms, bulletin boards and existing posters as the spots to hit. Leaving a bunch of information on a desk doesn't always cut it.
- When a female artist does get recognized, shout about it. Tell your friends to go and see her work, get to blogging or sharing the story on social media, and let galleries know when they’re doing a good job. If art exhibitions with women get positive feedback and male-centric ones are received poorly then perhaps curators will get the hint.
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