For nearly 30 years, a group of women has rallied against inequality in the arts community by using powerful publications, edgy images and brazen billboards to relay their message.
They do it all while wearing gorilla masks and maintaining total anonymity. The Guerrilla Girls adopt the names of popular deceased female artists both as homage to their works and as a means of maintaining their secrecy while they work to annihilate sexism and racism.
“You can’t tell the story of a culture without all the voices in it,” says “Kathe Kollwitz,” named in honor of the German painter, printmaker and sculptor who worked during the first half of the 20th century.
Guerrilla Girls Frida Kahlo and Kollwitz will stage a multimedia performance in full jungle drag March 20 at Carnegie Lecture Hall in Oakland. The artists will narrate their history of creating posters, books and actions that expose discrimination in art, film and politics.
The event is part of the Carnegie Museum of Art series “What Are Museums For?” After the performance, Henry J. Heinz II Director Lynn Zelevansky will engage the Guerilla Girls in an exchange of ideas about the evolving role of women in the art world.
“The Guerilla Girls have had a major impact on the international art world,” says Zelevansky. “Rather than marching on picket lines — the common form of protest in the U.S. in 1984, when they began — they made posters that mixed serious and pointed criticism with humor. It was a dynamic and appealing combination that may have been new in the annals of protest. They did not hesitate to name the names of the museums and galleries that showed no or very few women, which was most of the most powerful ones at the time. Their work raised consciousness and definitely helped to change things.”
The group first became active when the Museum of Modern Art in New York opened an exhibition titled “An International Survey of Painting and Sculpture,” intended to be a summary of the most-significant contemporary art in the world. According to the Guerrilla Girls’ website, out of 169 artists in that show, 13 were women. All were white.
Then the museum’s curator said “any artist who wasn’t in the show should rethink ‘his’ career,” leading women to demonstrate in front of the museum. The women did more research and found the most-influential galleries and museums exhibited almost no women artists. To bring the issue to the public’s attention, they put up posters in the streets of SoHo.
Over the past nearly three decades, their focus has expanded to include efforts to erase inequality in the film industry, politics and other arenas. One of their posters, which has been displayed on everything from billboard trucks to T-shirts, features an altered version of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres painting “La Grande Odalisque” in which the depicted woman dons a gorilla mask. The message next to her reports that, while less than 4 percent of artists in the Modern Art section of the Metropolitan Museum of Art are women, 76 percent of the nudes are female. It asks “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?”
The women mask their identities in order to maintain their careers and personal lives in the “very small, clubby” art world, says Kahlo. It’s also proven to be an effective tool in spreading their message.
“It’s part of the secret of our success,” says Kahlo. “It makes our work unforgettable.”
The women refuse to reveal how many members they have, but Kollwitz says at least 50 women have participated at one time or another during the group’s existence. The women consider themselves “creative complainers.”
“We certainly don’t think everyone is bad,” says the Guerrilla known as Kollwitz. “The art world is great. The system sucks.”
The women hope to inspire others to take on issues affecting them. On March 21, the day following their performance at the lecture hall, they’ll be at Carnegie Museum of Natural History‘s R.P. Simmons Family Gallery to tour the museum’s Empowering Women exhibition with a focus on its relevance for today’s college students.
“We get thousands of emails and letters every year from women age 8 to 80 who tell us our work made them step up about issues they care about,” Kahlo says.
Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or [email protected].