'Guerrilla Girls' Ask: Does this art museum represent you?

February 29, 2012

It’s amazing what a facility with facts, a way with graphic design, and a willingness to wear a gorilla mask can accomplish. Such are the calling cards of the Guerilla Girls, the feminist collective that kicked off its critique of the art world in the mid-1980s.

Listen to an interview with Guerilla Girl Frida Kahlo from Afternoon Shift

Based mainly in New York City and still active today, the girls strategically took a stance of anonymity. They adopted pseudonyms, naming themselves after dead female artists (Frida Kahlo for example). And they never take their masks off in public – whether protesting a museum or conducting a workshop with art students.

But their goal has always been transparent: to point out a wide-spread inequity among art types. Museums and dealers mainly show – and sell – the work of white male artists.

Their use of simple facts laid bare the exclusion of women and people of color from the city’s major art institutions. But their sense of humor simultaneously ups the shock value and makes their message a little …easier to swallow.

Take one of their most famous works, Do Women Have to be Naked to get into the Met. Museum? In the billboard-size image, a well-known nude, Ingres’ Odalisque, wears a gorilla mask and seems to contemplate a set of facts: Less than 5 percent of the works in the modern art sections of the Metropolitan Museum are by women. But 85% of their nudes are female.

A pointed critique at the time, and one that’s still relevant today. In 2011 the collective re-did their so-called “weenie count” and found that 76% of the nude holdings are now female, but less than 4 percent of the modern artists are women.  The more things change, the worse they get?

So the critique remains, but is the collective still relevant? I think the Guerrilla Girls are at the convergence of a number of recent cultural shifts. There’s a renewed interest in political activism driven by contests over public spaces and enterprise, as evidenced by occupy movements and other political revolts around the world. There’s an attraction to the strategies and techniques of '80s and '90s-era artist-activists like Act Up and Gran Fury, and the sense of a continuum between their critiques and those of a current activist like China’s Ai Weiwei. And oddly, there’s a rediscovery of the idea that women – even feminist women  – can be funny, even or especially about womanly things.

As the Guerrilla Girls themselves points out, they aren’t saying stuff many people don't already know. But there is something about their take on the world that is appealing, even endearing. Once you start contemplating the “progressiveness” of the U.S. Senate relative to Hollywood, or consider the (tongue in cheek) benefits of stereotypes and tokenism, you’re hooked.  

And, like that child who pointed out the emperor’s lack of clothes, once you see the world through Guerrilla Girl eyes, this stuff is everywhere.

See for yourself. Not Ready to Make Nice: Guerilla Girls in the Artworld and Beyond, the two-gallery survey of their work, especially over the past 12 years, opens this week at Columbia College Chicago.

And join Steve Edwards and me on The Afternoon Shift - we'll talk with Guerrilla Girl Frida Kahlo and Columbia College art student Michelle Graves.