The Guerrilla Girls: Activism at its finest

In 1985 the MOMA in New York held an exhibition entitled “An International Survey of Painting and Sculpture”. It was supposed to feature the artists producing the most compelling and original work at the time. You can imagine, that breaking through at the MOMA would be the dream of every artist in 1985. It wasn’t all sunshine and roses in the art world, though. A significant percentage of artists found themselves excluded from the exhibition; they were women, both white and of African-American or other decent. The numbers were shocking: there were only 13 women participating in an exhibition of 169 artists. Noone would dare mention women of colour. Why? Because there were none. 

This exhibition was the tip of the iceberg for a group of women artists working in New York at the time. Getting the same kind of access to exhibitions, auctions and galleries as their male counterparts was next to impossible. Even though they knew that their work was worthy of recognition, they couldn’t get anywhere; not because they didn’t try. There were very few women that had succeeded to make a name for themselves in the art world compared to men. And the majority of them were already dead. It wasn’t that a man’s work was better. It was that for men, things seemed to be easier. They realized that they had to do something to change the circumstances both for themselves and all women artists in general.

Do Women Have To Be Naked to Get Into the Met. Museum?, Guerrilla Girls, 1989

These were the circumstances under which the Guerrilla Girls were born. They are a group of feminist, female artists based in New York and they fight against inequality in the art world. Even though they focus on gender inequality and gender bias in the art world, over the years they have expanded their focus on politics, feminism and human rights in general. What’s very intriguing about the Guerrilla Girls is that they have managed to remain anonymous since the day they were formed by wearing the gorilla masks that have now become their means of identification; see, they don’t want their identities to take away from their activist work. Each one of them calls themselves by a dead female artist. There’s Frida Kahlo, Kathe Kollwitz, Alma Thomas and Rosalba Carriera. It would be unfair, though, to limit their importance to a bunch of gorilla masks and forget that their work has not only proven to be poignant and highly influential but also a great source of pressure for museums and galleries worldwide. 

Their work consists mainly of large-format posters. Their first posters were resembling newspaper headlines but they slowly started to introduce colour and more elaborate eye-catching graphics from 1989 onwards, with their famous poster called Do women have to be naked to get into the MET. museum?”. The Guerrilla Girls used  Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’ nude painting La Grande Odalisque, one of the most famous nudes in art history, for their first coloured poster that took up the advertising space in New York buses after its original rejection by the Public Art Fund in New York. They placed a gorrila head in the place of the head in the portrait to mark their identity. The poster caused a stir in New York and the Guerrilla Girls started becoming more and more well known and their protests expanded to putting stickers on the walls of the Guggenheim fighting female inequality. By 2000 they started doing commissions for major institutions such as Fundación Bilbao Arte in Bilbao and Istanbul Modern in Istanbul. And that was only the start. The posters, graffitis and books show great compositional and colouring techniques as well as a distinct aesthetic cohesion.

Since then, the Guerrilla Girls have taken part in the Venice Biennale in 2005 celebrating the first Biennale in Venice that was directed by a female. They even projected one of their iconic posters “Dear Art Collector” in Greek in the entrance of the 2007 ART-Athina exhibition and a retrospective of their work was held in the Hellenic American Union the same year. But that wasn’t enough for the Guerrilla Girls. They have, also, taken Art History by storm by printing a series of books. The Guerrilla Girls Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art, The Guerrilla Girl’s Museum Activity Book and The Hysterical Herstory Of Hysteria And How It Was Cured From Ancient Times Until Now, are some of their publications that have been printed and reprinted and sold worldwide. Their collaborations include the Amnesty International, Tate Modern in London while their “Not Ready to Make Nice” series of exhibitions has travelled from the U.S. to France as well. This success has sparked criticism and a schism at the team of the Guerrilla Girls, that now have the sisterhood organisations, Guerrilla Girls Broadband and Guerrilla Girls On Tour!. None of this could have stopped them.

The Guerrilla Girls might have started a war with the well-situated patriarchy in the art world by targeting museums, galleries, even Hollywood, but that doesn’t mean that inequality is in the past. Things might be getting better, but changes are happening in baby steps. In fact, women in art professions still make 20.000$ less per year than their male colleagues. Out of all artists represented by galleries in Europe and North America females make up only 13,7%. On top of that none of the worlds’ top museums, the British Museum, the Louvre (both of them established in the late 18th century) and the Metropolitan Museum (established in 1870) have had female directors. Up until the first half of 2018, there were only 5 women in the list of the top 100 best-selling artists at auctions. This disparity and inequality exceeds what only one group of women can do. If anything, the world needs more Guerrilla Girls.

All statistics courtesy of © 2019 national museum of women in the arts

All posters and artwork courtesy, Copyright © Guerrilla Girls