2 minute read
The Guerrilla Girls are the “conscience of the art world” – a collective of women artists calling out sexism and other forms of discrimination. Their villain origin story began in 1985, the year after the Museum of Modern Art in New York exhibited An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture. Of the 165 artists featured, only 13 women earned the honour of being included.
Anonymity is crucial to what they do. They use pseudonyms of dead women artists like “Frida Kahlo” and “Mary Boone” – a reminder that there are in fact women artists. They also wear gorilla masks made of latex and fur to mask their identities.
Not only is this an attention-grabbing aesthetic that has captivated the media for the last four decades, it also means that the work is not reduced to their physical appearance. This is pertinent in a world where statues and paintings of naked female figures fill museum halls, but women are still underrepresented in the arts.
The US National Museum of Women Artists figures are astounding. They report that major museum collections are 87% male and 85% white (as of 2018). Almost half of all art galleries represent fewer than 25% women artists. This is despite the fact that women earn 70% of fine art degrees in the US, and 46% of working artists are women.
As the Guerrilla Girls have pointed out, Europe is even worse.
This stark inequality is presented on their art posters, flyers and art world report cards. They take visual cues from the anti-advertising style of Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger, two artists also involved in feminist activism and action in the 1980s. As well as organising collective actions such as protests outside brick and mortar art institutions.
In the decades since their formation, the Guerrilla Girls have extended their creative rebellion to tackle broader social inequalities. For example, the regressive policies and discourse after the election of Trump.
The Guerrilla Girls and other art-activism collectives such as Feminist Art Coalition and Black Art Speaks, show the world two things. Firstly the art world has a long way to go in challenging inequality. Secondly, art can be politically engaged in the world, not locked up in museum collection basements.
Avant Essays are short(ish) opinions on art, written by anyone with an opinion on art.
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Explore the Guerrilla Girls chronology and complete works.
Read an interview in Paper City Magazine with the collective in the wake of their #MeToo protest.
The New York Times profiled the Guerrilla Girls on their 30th anniversary in 2015.
Listen to an episode of The Great Women Artists podcast on the Guerrilla Girls.