Guerrilla Girls


At the end of last year, the American art collective Guerrilla Girls exhibited a large-scale retrospective at the Alhodinga Gallery in Bilbao, Spain. Comprised of 70 posters and nearly 200 smaller projects, it was the first time their works have been exhibited in their entirety. The retrospective sends a message that is simultaneously inspiring and disappointing: the power and sheer volume of works is incredible and yet their statements are as relevant in 2014 as they were when the group was formed in the mid-1980s.

In 1984 in New York, the Museum of Modern Art held an exhibition entitled An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture. The exhibition included 169 artists of whom only 13 were women, whilst the curator Kynaston McShine announced that “any artist who wasn’t in the show should rethink his career.” In response to the clear message of misogyny that such unequal representation and gender specificity sent, the Women’s Caucus called a protest demonstration. We spoke to Kathe Kollwitz, one of the founding members of the Guerilla Girls, about how this demonstration ignited a call to arms amongst her and her friends to do something different, resulting in protest art that has sustained relevance ever since.

“So, we went to this demonstration with the usual: placards, picket signs, things like that and we saw it immediately: nobody cares. Not one person outside of MoMA cared about us, everyone walked right in and nobody wanted to hear about women, about feminism. That was the ‘aha!’ moment: it was so obvious that there had to be a better way, a more media savvy, more contemporary way to get through to people. So, a few of us had an idea to put up posters on the streets of New York and try to tell this story in a totally different style. We called a small group of colleagues and friends together, passed a hat around to pay for costs and that’s how we started.”

During the early 80s, feminism’s focus lay upon the work of women like Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, staunchly militant and quickly isolating. Magazines likeNewsweek reveled in publishing articles on ‘Feminism’s Identity Crisis’ whilst, as Susan Faludi aptly notes in Backlash, “in the 1980s trend analysis, women’s conflict was no longer with her society and culture but only with herself.” The powerful campaigns of women like Kate Millett, Shulamith Firestone and Gloria Steinem were becoming rapidly forgotten by a media with a vested interest in inequality: whilst Harpers Bazaar in the 70s offered cover stars like Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer, by the mid-80s they instead asked women: “Are you Turning Men Off?: Desperate and Demanding”, holding women’s liberation accountable for the supposed depression of single women. “Women’s success has come at the cost of relationships”, Richard Threlkeld told ABC’s 1986 audience, to the response of co-host Betty Aaron: “that [is] the price of the revolution: freedom and independence turning to loneliness and depression.”

Liberation was no longer in vogue – according to Kathe, “in the mid 60s and early 70s, things were getting better but we saw by the mid 80s things had gotten a lot worse… it really was a time of backlash.” So, the Guerrilla Girls were formed with something different in mind, with a philosophy of “twisting an issue around using facts but also humour and in-your-face-visuals.” The name itself speaks to their alternative methods: “we wanted to be different. I loved [the name] because it had ‘girls’ in it and this is before girl power, so you weren’t supposed to use the word girls! So, we thought ‘this is great, this will send a message about the fact that we are different’ and that, coupled with our different strategy and our way of twisting issues around, maybe that’d work.” And it did: in 1985, they put up two posters on the streets of New York and “all hell broke loose.”

The issues against which Guerrilla Girls protested were the same as the rest of the liberation movements of the time: gender equality, inclusion and opportunity for artists of colour, but their methods employed a more engaging approach to the niche publishing opportunities and small galleries to which 80s feminism was often relegated. They had a clear intention: “our goal has always been to convert people, not just preach to the converted […] We believe everyone should be a feminist and, in a way, we believe a lot of people are feminists, but have taken cues from the media which tries to demonise feminism, so it’s understandable that some people don’t want to call themselves feminists.”

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, art historians like Josephine Withers and Charlotte Rubenstein started to publish surveys and compendia to accompany traditional art histories, inserting a female presence into a narrative that had ignored it. Whilst authors like Eleanor Tufts have since come under criticism for their white-washing of female artists, the practice of re-examining a creative history bereft of female production slowly started to raise curatorial awareness around gender inequality in the arts. By adopting pseudonyms of dead and often forgotten female artists from Hannah Höch to Rosalba Carriera, the Guerrilla Girls further promoted this new approach to history alongside intersectionality in protest movements. “There are so many fantastic women artists, some of whom were quite successful in their own time, but were completely forgotten by our history. So we decided that each of us would take the name of a dead woman artist, somebody who you care about, somebody who has some connection, who you feel some connection to, and that’s what we did.”

This anonymity proved to be more than just a commentary on poststructural theory, “because then, it wasn’t really about us at all, it focused everything on the issues: you couldn’t hate what we were doing because you hated us or hated our work or anything else. And mystery has always attracted attention and support.” And this has been true for the collective – over the past 30 years, Guerilla Girls have been exhibited everywhere from The Pompidou Centre to MoMA: ironically, galleries that they have explicitly criticised in their work. I asked Kathe if this level of recognition has been difficult for them on a political level – their inclusion in such galleries engages with the very economy that they protest. “We are outsiders, we like being outsiders, we like being outside of institutions. But, in the last ten years or so, the curators have come calling and our work has been shown at major museums around the world. At first we agonised about it: should we be doing this, are they using us? But in the end, we just couldn’t not show our work in those places, because they have great audiences. Most people don’t know about the arts system, how corrupt it is, and our work talks about that incessantly – whenever we have our work in big institutions, we get so much feedback from people telling us that they didn’t know about this before. So, it’s been great. And we made it okay for everyone to count: to count the number of female artists, artists of colour, and that made a lot of people aware of what’s going on, including curators and museum directors.”

However, Guerilla Girls don’t reserve their attentions exclusively to the traditional art industry – they have also designed and installed billboards in LA during Oscars season to expose the endemic misogyny in Hollywood film. One such work is their 2001 Birth of Feminism, inspired by the fact that “Hollywood producers have come to us saying, ‘we wanna make a movie about feminism, do you have any ideas?’ And we always thought that was so ludicrous because don’t we just know the kind of movie Hollywood would make? So we decided we would do the movie poster for the film that we hope never gets made the Hollywood way, about how fucked up Hollywood is and how things are even worse in the film industry than in the art world.”

In this poster, Gloria Steinem, Flo Kennedy and Bella Abzug are played by scantily-clad Pamela Anderson, Halle Berry and Catherine Zeta-Jones, women celebrated for their bodies with the phrase “equality now” held on a banner slung across their hips, just above the slogan “they made women’s rights look good. Really good”. When I asked Kathe whether this poster extended criticism to the actresses it depicted and whether she felt the women who play into the societal norms ought be subject to critique, she responded: “it isn’t so much a comment on the actresses as the producers, the directors – actresses have to fit into a lot of different moulds, especially if you’re a gorgeous babe actress. These women actually are stars of movies and ran around without a lot of clothes; I don’t feel it says anything about their acting but rather about the system and how the system pushes women into these boxes that are incredibly false and confining.” In this sense, the collective’s work speaks to a greater truth about female inequality: although they explicitly explore the arts industries, this operates merely as a microcosm for patriarchy’s powerful reign across all of society, and how the attention feminism is often allowed is in accordance with how attractively it is presented.

Anne Demo calls the collective a model for grassroots movements and feminism in a time when there is a call for “increased critical attention to non-traditional forms of feminist rhetoric.” It is worth noting how revolutionary Guerrilla Girls has been for a new model of empowerment, one not restricted to theoretical debate but practical and engaging discussion; as Kathe says, “one really sad thing we found in [feminism] is that there’s always been all this fighting and all these wars, theories about this and about that and we always stayed out of that. We functioned as a group of artists rather than worrying about theory wars and ideas… We don’t use jargon; one of the most wonderful things is that I’m one of the founders of the Guerrilla Girls so I’ve been involved in everything from the very beginning and one of the things that means the most to me is that we’ve been so lucky to inspire people all over the place. You at 13, other people at eight, some at 80, we get thousands and thousands of letters from people all over the world saying our work has inspired them to be their own crazy kind of activist. That means more than anything.”

“Women’s rights are really important – feminism may not get the respect that it deserves but the idea of rights for women is changing almost every society. Some glacially, some drastically: even the most repressive countries have feminists working quietly and secretly and things are slowly changing. I think we’re all inching towards more and more possibility, more and more rights and less and less powers-that-be deciding what a woman should or shouldn’t do with her life, her love-life, her body and her reproductive organs. I think it’s a process; everyone has to stand up for what they believe in and confront people when they’re doing something that you don’t like. That’s basically what we do, we call ourselves creative complainers and over time it all adds up to something.”

Women are still vastly underrepresented in the world of arts: during the 2005 Venice Biennale, the Guerrilla Girls released a poster identical to their 1989 version but with updated statistics that were disappointingly similar. On a poster from their March 2012 exhibition at Chicago’s Columbia College, the Guerrilla Girls stated that 90% of the artists displayed in the Art Institute of Chicago’s modern galleries are male. As Kathe says, “at the entry level in commercial art galleries, things are better for women and artists of colour than ever before but as you go up and up the ladder it gets harder and harder and museums are still falling behind. There’s a lot of catching up to do but luckily, if they try, they can catch up because there’s so much great work out there.”

It is no small feat that Guerrilla Girls have achieved over the past three decades: sustaining relevance in politics and art, garnering international attention and celebration from both. Gloria Steinem aptly called them a “group that symbolised the best of feminism in this country”, positing them in contrast to feminist academia, where “knowledge that is not accessible is not helpful.” There are few political art collectives that can claim such visible accessibility whilst operating as a powerful tool for change, fewer still that can simultaneously sell a Bedside Companion to Western Art alongside rubbers emblazoned with “Erase Discrimination” in their gift shop. With wit, self-awareness and humour, Guerrilla Girls’ art action continually exposes industries that belie greater truths about societal patriarchy and powerfully confront arenas which are too often left unchallenged.