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The Guerrilla Girls feminist call to action is coming to a billboard near you

In her book Feminism, Interrupted: Disrupting Power, the feminist writer and researcher Lola Olufemi emphasises the liberatory potential of art, proclaiming that “Art is best utilised as a weapon, a writing back, as evidence that we were here”. Olufemi shares this perspective with the gorilla mask-wearing feminist art collective the Guerrilla Girls, who, through their structural critique of the art world, have reiterated the power of art to alter social and political consciousness.

Beginning in the 1980s, its founding members, who go by the aliases Frida Kahlo and Käthe Kollwitz after the great women artists, have produced spectacular posters that confront the shortcomings of some of the biggest museums in the world. In 1989, their screenprint of Do Women Have to Be Naked to Get Into the Met. Museum?, which featured a painting by Jean-Auguste-Dominique modified with a gorilla mask, stated with staggering clarity the state of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s modern art collection, where ‘less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art Sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female’. Other posters recounted, with the Guerrilla Girls’ trademark satirical bite, the abysmal collections of commercial galleries in New York that primarily represented white male artists.

Their influence on the contemporary art world is immeasurable, and many art enthusiasts go so far as to call them ‘art world royalty’. A term that is perhaps too antiquated for the Guerrilla Girls’ taste, whose goal has always been to democratise art, away from billionaires and museums who concertise ideas of taste and quality based on their private collections. Their anonymity, which began as a safety measure to protect their members from the vitriol of the art world, is now their superpower, shares Frida. “I think our anonymity intrigues people and draws them in. As we are artists, the masks also ensure that our message and politics aren’t obscured by what people think of our personalities and our art.”


Words by Zara Afthab

Over the last few decades, feminists, artists and art historians have similarly focused on the political power of visual culture, rejecting the idea of ‘art for art’s sake’. South London Gallery’s latest exhibition, Acts of Resistance: Photography, Feminisms and The Art of Protest, which deftly explores feminist resistance through the lens of photography, is an extension of this modality. Organised in collaboration with the V&A, Acts of Resistance presents the work of 18 artists, such as Hoda Afshar, Carmen Winant and the Guerrilla Girls, whose work responds to a gamut of transnational feminist concerns.

As part of the exhibition, South London Gallery has partnered with BUILDHOLLYWOOD on a billboard campaign to display the Guerrilla Girls History of Wealth and Power from 2016. The work demands that the viewer looks outside of what institutions  decree to be art and is a confronting reminder of how ways of the art world have been irrevocably shaped by “big-time dealers, curators and collectors.” To the Guerrilla Girls, the museum has never been a neutral space; instead, they propose the idea of museums as social places for the public where the values of money don’t reign supreme. This collaboration with BUILDHOLLYWOOD which will appear across the cultural sites neighbouring SLG and the V&A throughout March, is a poignant activist gesture that displays this sentiment, challenging the art world to hold accountability.

In the lead-up to the Guerrilla Girls BUILDHOLLYWOOD collaboration, I speak to the collective about their practice, the structural problems innate to museums and how we can begin to frame the art institutions as a social space punctuated by politics that rethinks definitions of identity, culture and taste.

The Guerrilla Girls have been protesting against museums and resisting the structures inherent to art institutions for almost four decades; what prompted this form of protest?

Frida: It all kicked off in 1985 when the Museum of Modern Art reopened after a fancy renovation with a show titled the International Survey of Painting and Sculpture. The show featured 91% white male artists, and it struck us as ironic because they so clearly stated that it was an international survey, but how ‘international’ could a show like that be? Many artists like us were angry at the exhibit, so we decided to protest outside the museum. We formed a picket line and came with picket signs and chants, but it didn’t seem to have an effect on anyone. The people going in and out of the museum seemed upset at our presence, but it didn’t stop anyone from going in and they still didn’t really question what the museum was showing.

Käthe: We came to the conclusion that this form of the protest wasn’t working and pledged that day to try to find a better way to wake people up to examine the art world and criticise it just as other fields of human endeavour are critiqued. Our goal was centered around wanting to show how the system is not as open and fair as everyone wanted to think. We called a meeting with a bunch of people and started making these street posters where we would use crazy headlines and statistics to wake people up to how limiting museums and galleries really were.

One aspect that repeatedly stands out is the use of quantifiable figures and statistics in the posters. It’s a staggering reminder of the state of these institutions and the art world, as well as the work left to be done. What inspired this use of statistics?

Frida: We realised that unless you presented the numbers, it was just a rhetorical question whether the art world was fair and whether the work that you saw in museums was really the broadest representation of culture. But it’s hard to argue with the statistics so we figured out a way of making an outrageous statement to get people to stop and think and then we would hit them with the numbers and facts to give us more credibility.

Käthe: But there’s something more to our posters, everyone had access to these statistics and it had to effect at all. But what we did was a new kind of street poster that used crazy, humorous and unforgettable headlines to grab your attention and tell you something you didn’t know.

The art world you critiqued in the 1980s is quite different from the one now, what was the immediate reaction to the posters?

Käthe: Initially there was a real divide between people who loved us and people who hated us. But in a way that was great because they created the dialogue and back and forth for us. As time went on, we think there are fewer and fewer people who disagree with us.

There’s this idea that objects in the museum have an inherent quality and value to them and so much of GG’s work deftly challenges that notion. Why was it important for your work to challenge ways of thinking and looking?

Frida: Our goal is to get people to think about things they haven’t thought about already because the more you deep dive into discrimination, it’s about all kinds of other things. It’s about the economy. It’s about history. It’s about all kinds of things that people might not be aware of. To be honest, art has not been critically looked at by the general public because there’s this crazy idea of art appreciation, which doesn’t really have a critical component to it. So people will go to museums that have European art, and they’ll see painting after painting of naked women being acted upon. Perhaps it’s through mythological and historical scenes. But they’re still looking at sexual violence, but no one really identifies it as such because there’s lots of beautiful flesh and there’s draperies in the sky and what not. So we’re trying to make people look closer at the content of art and how it reflects our culture. And it’s not to moralise them and say that those paintings are bad. It’s just that they are about what they’re about even if it is violent. When we complain about sexual violence and violence in our culture today, we have to look at the art of the past to see that it was always there in some form.

Each piece of your work addresses crucial topics from sexism in the art world, to reproductive rights climate change and prison reform,is there a particular poster that stands out as a favourite?

Käthe: I don’t know if I could pick one because working on each piece has been great. While we are dealing with horrible issues that are really difficult to overcome, it’s truly wonderful to try to engage in something that’ll change people’s minds. So everything we work on, we come in with that attitude.

Frida: The answer changes everyday. But at the moment, my favourite work is Hot Flashes which was a quarterly newsletter that we wrote back in the late nineties. It was this satirical, funny piece of work that addressed different issues that we noticed in culture at the time. Our first edition dealt with the New York Times and their art coverage. The second issue was concerned with what they called multiculturalism at the time, where we found out that American museums weren’t multicultural at all and that museums in New York were probably the worst. And then the third one was about tokenism and the question of whether it is real change when you include one woman artist or one artist of colour or when you tokenize them. It’s fresh in my mind because we were going through them with the young and wonderful exhibition staff at the Getty who are in the process of putting up a show based on our archive. They said that in their experience, not a whole lot has changed and that stopped me in my tracks and I’ve been thinking about that ever since.

The question of tokenism is one that definitely comes up when artists from marginalised backgrounds get a single solo show or when their cultural identity eclipses their art. The backlash focuses on how art institutions and commercial galleries are riding riding a trend cycle with their curatorial efforts and programming. I wonder if you could shed some light on why major institutions are falling behind?

Käthe:I think we are making strides in the art world but it’s really hard to change these stultified places. They’re also stuck with their collections because they haven’t historically collected diverse artists with all kinds of backgrounds  and points of view. On the other hand, so many curators today are trying to push that rock up a hill. If you look at a place like the Tate Modern and the exhibitions they put on you can see that shift immediately. But there’s still the problem of the permanent collection and the innate prejudice on how curators choose things. They also have to answer to the people at the top who want the work that they collect shown and they probably don’t collect the work of marginalised artists. So these issues go on and on and on. Luckily, you cannot stop artists from making art and that’s why we have a culture. It’s not dictated by curators or collectors who decided it was good art or bad art. Culture is created by artists who keep pressing on and doing things that none of us would ever expect.

Frida: There’s a kind of structural problem in the art world and that is that it is chiefly concerned with unique objects that can exist in only in one place at one time and that sort of plays into capitalism and the production of luxury items that can only be pursued by the super wealthy. Museums are expensive places to run and if you don’t have public funding then museum workers have to find art collectors in whose interests it is to have museums exhibit what they collect. It’s a tremendous conflict of interest that goes against all kinds of ideas about an ethical and free market.

Those concerns with the art market and museum culture relate to your work from 2016, History of Wealth and Power that is being shown on billboards across London. Could you tell us a bit more about the inspiration behind the work?

Käthe: It’s a foundational work of ours that succinctly states what we’ve been talking about throughout this conversation about structural problems in the museum. The statement, “don’t let museums show only the history of wealth and power”, is confronting and guides people into thinking about the works in art spaces more critically. It’s a simple poster with all our usual ingredients, a statement that’s conveyed in a way that’s unforgettable and a crazy visual of a huge audience of almost all women holding gorilla masks over their heads to grab people’s attention and it’s had an incredible effect around the world.

Frida: While making this work we were looking at at the history of European art, which we’re most familiar with, especially art made before the age of revolution and what we realised was that art before the 19th century was always what kings and queens and emperors told us it was. Naturally, one would have thought that the age of democracy would democratise the visual arts but in our age, it’s going backwards because it’s money that dictates art and billionaires have become the new aristocracy in terms of defining taste.

That’s very interesting because I do think we have somehow been conditioned to believe that the quality of an art work is directly related to it’s market value. How do the both of you think the focus on wealth and money is impacting contemporary art and culture?

Frida: We’ve always felt that the fact that money controls how we perceive art runs runs counter to what artists are producing and what the culture want. Except that, our culture is obsessed with wealth. It’s annoying when press coverage is about what paintings and sculptures catch at auction and people somehow think that the most expensive work is the most important. If you would judge literature by how many copies it sold rather than it’s merit, we wouldn’t have an very rich history, so why do we prescribe the rhetoric of money to artworks?

Käthe: While that is definitely true, we can’t leave out the incredible explosion of artwork by people online. The internet has opened the world to all kinds of different artwork and allowed artists to experiment with different mediums and completely shift the way works get disseminated. They’re fighting against the old system by making art more accessible rather than seeing it as a luxury item that can only exist in one place at a time.

There has also been this huge explosion of art that similar to the work done by the Guerrilla Girls, overtly confronts socio-political issues specifically those that relate to gender, capitalism and race. Major galleries and museums are now collecting and displaying this work such as the SLG, how does the intersection of resistance and art help the feminist cause?

Frida: Art has always taken on society and been about creating a dialogue, but the political art that is being created now speaks to how in contemporary times everyone is trying to step up and not accept the status quo. We’re on a precipice now with the rise of authoritarianism art and other human expression has to somehow be offended by that and go against what existed before.

Käthe: Seeing shows of art that takes on society is really interesting because they affirm to so many people, especially students, who are all trying to fight this screwed up system and make things better that their efforts are crucial and valued. What these shows do especially well is showing the historical context, the contemporary landscape, and inspire people to work towards the future.

It’s been almost 4 decades since the Guerrilla Girls was formed, we would love to know how the work being made and the way you work with art institutions has shifted?

Käthe: It feels really rewarding now when museums ask us to come in and do projects where we criticise their collections. There’s always this fear that their invite is a setup to being co-opted but in our experience we’ve always found that there’s a genuine desire to move past what existed before.

Frida: Organisations that feel the need to change but don’t quite know how to do it or they don’t know where to start reach out to us work on projects. We’ve been staging complaint departments all over the world now where we go in, paint a wall and invite people to come in and complain about anything they want. Then at the end of it we have the institution document the complaints and it becomes a time capsule of discontent at a certain time and in a certain place. It’s a very interesting, kind of journalistic experiment that’s great fun to do, because you never know what’s going to happen. We never really thought when we started that we would that we would be asked to come inside an institution and critique it and while we do still feel like outsiders, it’s great that we’re able to communicate with the public through these institutions.

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