Beyond Borders #6 :: The Guerilla Girls
28 August 2012
Tania De Rozario
They’ve been around for almost three decades, fighting sexism, racism and tokenism in the art world, and have taken on everyone from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to international biennales. Having established themselves as arguably the most (in)famous feminist art group in the world to date, they have maintained anonymity, an international fanbase and a steady practice comprising posters, taglines, actions, protests, interventions and of course, their signature gorilla masks, since 1985. This month, Etiquette catches up with the Guerilla Girls and gets some insight into their lives as masked avengers....
Name/ Age/ Occupation/ Location
Guerrilla Girls/ Feminist Masked Avengers/ formed 1985/ based in New York with supporters and members all over the world.
You are probably the most widely known feminist guerilla art group in the world today. How do you feel about the fact that your practice as a collective, has reached such levels of visibility? Did any of you foresee this happening?
In 1985 we were annoyed and pissed off by the state of women in the art world so we put up a couple of posters that started a dialogue that is going on to this day. We never intended that it would be a life’s work. But it keeps getting more and more interesting so it’s hard to ever think of stopping.
That's awesome. And based on the initial goals you set for yourselves back in the 80s, what would you say you have achieved and what would you say you are still working towards?
When we started in 1985 there was so much conscious and unconscious sexism in the art world. No one even questioned the accepted notion that the art world was a meritocracy: if women and artists of color were not included in shows and collections, it was because their work was not good enough. Now it’s a no-brainer that you can’t write a full history of any visual culture without all the voices of that culture included. Bringing that idea to light was very important to us. Now we’re looking at systematic corruption in the art market, in the world of art collecting and in the museums where visual art gets validated.
The policing of museums - we like that idea! Over the course of your career, did you encounter any setbacks that you thought might do you in? If so, how did you deal with them?
Over the years we have been harassed by the sanitation department for putting up posters on private property, criticized by art critics who thought our posters were publicity stunts, mocked by art dealers like Mary Boone who thought we were making excuses for the weaknesses of women artists, and frustrated by curators who asked us to create projects and then were upset by the provocative projects we created. We have even had new members come into the group who thought the humor in our work was inappropriate. Through it all, we knew we were on the right side of history and that any struggle worth winning is difficult along the way.
The right side of history. A very relevant way of looking at all activist work. Speaking of which, given that you have created art protests around the world via your stand-ins and posters, from your research and/or experience, have you come across art industries in any countries that fair pretty well in terms of equal representation?
In Spain there is a gender equality law that requires public institutions like the Reina Sofia to collect women artists. Tate Modern in London has a specific program to collect and show more art by women. The Pompidou Center in Paris organized a huge show of work by women from the collection that told a different story of the history of contemporary. And it broke all attendance records. Finally, the Museum of Modern Art in New York did a survey and publication of the work of women artists in it’s collection. Things are changing at the institutional level but are still really dismal at the level of the art market and especially auctions. There is a huge economic disparity between what women and artists of color earn and what white male artists get for the same kind of work.
Yes. We are constantly confronted with appalling statistics pertaining to the visibility of women and people of colour working in creative fields – do you have any advice for women artists and artists of colour with regards to how they can fight their own invisibility?
On a positive note, until women and people of color are accepted into the mainstream on an equal footing with white males, they have the freedom of whatever they want without worrying about achieving and maintaining a level of conventional success. It’s only a matter of time until they are discovered as the cultural “other” that is a necessary piece of the historical pie. Until then they have a certain freedom to be outrageous and innovative. The down side of this optimism is that one needs to have access to the means of production to make work and it is frustrating to have to work so hard to get what is given so freely to certain white males.
And you have worked very hard in both your anonymous and non-anonymous careers. We have read that The Guerilla Girls comprises women in various stages of their careers and that anonymity has helped you as individual artists, avoid what would otherwise likely be career suicide. On the flipside, has anonymity hindered your practice as a collective in any way?
Sure, it’s not easy to work for years and years without getting any public credit. It has made some of our past members crazy. And because certain members over the years have done very specific things like author our books and design our posters, we have to be careful who talks about what in public. On a personal level, sometimes it’s hard in our private lives to answer that question, “So, what have you been doing lately?” In the end, having two artistic lives, as a GG then as yourself, is ultimately liberating.
I am starting to think that we need some anonymous voices here too. In Singapore, there are strict laws regarding street protests as well as guerilla-based street art. Even silent protests comprising two people or the act of placing small stickers on public property, can land one in jail. Do you have any suggestions for street/protest artists working in such climates?
We’re lucky to live in a culture where making provocative art is not a dangerous activity. On the other hand, in the US it’s easy to dismiss and then forget about important protests. We are shocked and outraged by what has happened to Pussy Riot, but look at the instant global attention it has brought to the issue of intellectual freedom in Russia? Every culture is different and we know what to say to those who resist in the US. But it’s hard to know what to say to artists who live in repressive cultures, except to stay strong and look forward.
We at Etiquette are crossing our fingers: Any plans to come to Southeast Asia in the near or distant future?
We would love to come to Southeast Asia but we have no plans of yet. How can we get invited? Will we end up in jail? Should we line up our best feminist lawyers before we get on the plane?
Haha - good point. Perhaps things will change over the next decade. I for one, am willing to wait! That aside, tell us, how would you sum up your personal feminism/s into three sentences and how does this translate into the work you do?
Every Guerrilla Girl has her own definition of feminism: some of us want a piece of the pie; some of us want to smash the whole pie and start over. But we all agree that women, people of color, gays, lesbians and trannies do not have equal rights and equal opportunities in our culture and we want to figure out how to make that fact explicitly understood and we want to be part of reversing it.
If you happen to be in the US, the Guerilla Girls have a travelling show of all the work they have done since 2000, making its rounds. They are also planning a major retrospective in Spain, doing a couple of projects for the US election in November (of course!) and are travelling internationally, talking to people about how they can develop a voice to speak out against injustices in their lives.
Keep yourselves updated about the Guerilla Girls by checking out their website, liking their Facebook Page, or following them on Twitter.
Also available on their website are their books:
- Confessions of the Guerrilla Girls
- Guerrilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art
- Bitches, Bimbos and Ballbreakers: The Guerrilla Girls Illustrated Guide to Female Stereotypes
- The Guerrilla Girls Art Activity Book
- The Hysterical Herstory of Hysteria and How It Was Cured, From Ancient Times Until Now.
We highly recommend the Guerilla Girls as compulsory reading for all feminist artists! See photo of editor for evidence ---------------->
Filed under Spotlights | Interviews | Beyond Borders | Sept 2012
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