(Credits: Far Out / Guerrilla Girls)
“Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?” is one question the Guerrilla Girls have asked of the art world. Others include: “When racism and sexism are no longer fashionable, what will your art collection be worth?” and, to protest a selection of male artists showing their works in galleries with a visible lack of female artists: “What do these artists have in common?”. Since their 1985 formation, their incisive questions have highlighted the racism and sexism that undercuts one of the seemingly most inclusive fields there is.
The anonymous collective has been rallying against the underrepresentation of women and people of colour for decades, taking routine checks of bleak statistics with their “weenie” and “banana” counts of galleries. If it sounds contrived, it’s by design.
It was ridiculous that they could count the ratio of male to female artists in the Met and find women produced less than five per cent of the work there but find 85 per cent of the nudes on show were female. Condensing those numbers in their full context isn’t exactly poster-friendly, so their tact of asking provocative questions proved a far better way to further their feminist activism.
They often sent out their Dearest Art Collector poster to art collectors, dryly pointing out how few works they owned by female artists. On baby pink paper, girlish loopy handwriting spells out: “We know that you feel terrible about this and will rectify the situation immediately,” signing off: “All our love, Guerrilla Girls”. It perfectly highlighted how women in the industry were meant to be docile and grateful for what little spotlight they got. The poster became a collector’s item, commodifying their sincere message and missing the point entirely.
Nobody knows who to credit for their posters because, to conceal their identities and gorilla masks, they adopted the names of prolific female artists like Frida Kahlo and Alice Neel and activists like Harriet Tubman. On their poster tactics, “Kahlo” said it was a far more “media-savvy” way of reaching the public than previous pickets of museums had been.
They were often asked about the masks, which had obvious masculine connotations. Allusions were drawn to a Frank Kafka passage about tamed apes stifled by academics, but the symbolism was a pure accident. At an early meeting, one attendee spelt “guerrilla” wrong, and it just stuck.
“We were Guerrillas before we were Gorillas,” one member explained. “From the beginning, the press wanted publicity photos. We needed a disguise”. It had a two-fold utility: it was a play on their methodology and allowed them the freedom to lambast the art world without any personal cost.
“Anonymous free speech is protected by the Constitution,” they told Interview. “You’d be surprised what comes out of your mouth when you wear a mask.”