The Guerrilla Girls are an infamous group of feminist art activists who’ve been calling out sexism and prejudice in the art world since the 80s. On the eve of her first trip to New Zealand, group member ‘Frida Kahlo’ talks to Megan Dunn.
In 1984, the Museum of Modern Art in New York launched the exhibition An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture. Of the 165 exhibiting artists, only 15 were female, sparking a public furore. So, in 1985, a group of anonymous feminist activists donned gorilla masks and began postering the streets of New York City, naming and shaming. A poster said: “These are the most bigoted galleries in New York. Why? Because they show the fewest women and artists of colour.”
For the past 35 years, the Guerrilla Girls have exposed sexism, racism and corruption in the art world, using facts, humour and outrageous visuals to highlight gender and racial bias. Their projects include posters, books and videos, as well as interventions and exhibitions in museums, “blasting them on their own walls for their bad behaviour and discriminatory practices”. The Guerrilla Girls’ individual identities remain unknown. “We could be anyone and we are everywhere.”
Reinventing the ‘F’ Word – Feminism! at Auckland Art Gallery surveys the Guerrilla Girls’ activism from 1985 to 2016. Guerrilla Girl Frida Kahlo is visiting New Zealand, gorilla mask in her carry-on, to give a one-off performance at the gallery on 1 October. Her gig requests: bananas and a straw.
Megan Dunn Skypes in – video camera off – for a conversation about art-washing, Trump and the advantages of being a Guerrilla Girl.
How are you, Frida?
I’m fine. I’m looking forward to coming to New Zealand.
Guerrilla Girls has an evolving membership. Have there ever been New Zealand members?
More than 60 people have been in the group over the years. At first, we met mostly in New York – it was before there were even fax machines. I’m not sure if there have been any Australasians yet. This is our first time showing in New Zealand, but we’ve been to Australia twice. We’ve had a lot of support from your part of the world, and we’re thrilled Auckland Art Gallery has a portfolio of our work.
What are the advantages of being a woman artist now? Have things improved since the Guerrilla Girls made this list in 1988?
There are more women artists and artists of colour in museum collections than before, but not enough. There are more women in tenured teaching positions than before, but there’s still a lot of income inequality. The academy understood bias much earlier than the museum world or the art market, which still does not understand bias yet. Colleges and universities have been our biggest supporters and still are.
In the Auckland exhibition, the gallery’s own statistics are displayed. When museums show your portfolio, do you put require them to display their own stats around representation?
We don’t, but it’s happened a number of times now, so maybe we should. Once a museum has our portfolio in their collection, it’s interesting to see how they use it and it was thrilling to see what they did in Auckland. Our portfolio consists of the same posters we put up in the streets in New York, but together they tell a story that individual posters don’t.
The stats are shocking. Do they depress you?
I prefer to get angry. We need to fight. We can’t change history, but we can correct it. If we want art to represent the culture, it can’t be skewed to the dominant group. Our idea of diversity isn’t just about gender – it’s about ethnic diversity, sexual orientation and addressing ableism. It’s all kinds of things.
If you look at the art market, which often drives museum purchases and acquisitions, you’ll see that women and artists of colour just don’t have the same market value as white male artists. The art market is still telling the story of wealth and power, in the form of art by white men.
What the Guerrilla Girls didn’t realise years ago was that art would become such an instrument of investment, and that does depress me. You see art being determined by wealth, and art collectors are billionaires and oftentimes they want the same thing, which of course drives the prices up. Also, museums tend to have cookie-cutter collections. You’d think that museums in different places should have stunningly rich and different collections that have to do with the art of their place and time. In the United States, we don’t really have a tradition of government-funded museums. We have a few but most museums have been run by wealthy philanthropists and we all know that philanthropy doesn’t always solve problems.
What do you think of the International Council of Museums’ recent decision to update the definition of museums to include a responsibility for “social justice”?
In the US right now, we’re concerned with members of museum boards and the ethical and humanitarian standards they should be held to. Recently, it was discovered the Whitney Museum board’s vice chairman, Warren B. Kanders, owned a company that makes military supplies, including tear gas. After months of pressure and protests inside the museum, he finally resigned. Mariner Kemper, a trustee at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, is involved in detention centres, and there’s pressure for him to resign. People shouldn’t be allowed to use their museum connections to art-wash their reputations.
The Auckland show includes the chalkboard work I’m Not a Feminist, but If I Was, This Is What I Would Complain About… on which visitors can write their own concerns.
We first made that work in 2012, in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Irish female artists were telling us that they weren’t feminists, so we decided that we would give them an out, saying “OK, you don’t have to say you’re feminists, but tell us what issues you’d complain about”. Their issues were all feminist ones. It’s interesting to do interactive works where people can register their feelings about something at a certain time. It becomes a time capsule of discontent. You get different responses in New York and Krakow. In Auckland, our show opened after the horrendous mosque shooting and visitors wrote responses to that. Of course, you know the history of gun violence in the US. The majority of mass shooters in the US have been white men.
Over the years, members have dropped out of the Guerrilla Girls and some have criticised the group for its own internal politics.
Every possible problem that happens in an important relationship has happened to us. You can’t do the kind of work we do with a large group of people over a long period without conflicts. Sometimes it’s been necessary to part ways. We’ve learned from some of those experiences. Artists are trained to be individualistic rather than to work collectively, so that can be difficult. Guerrilla Girls is anonymous – you don’t get credit for it – and that doesn’t suit certain individuals. But I’m proud that we kept going and now have a body of work that the world acknowledges. Going forward, it’ll be interesting to see what future historians, scholars and artists will make of our work as a whole.
There’s a stronger focus on intersectionality today and criticism of the whiteness of earlier waves of feminism.
No activist group ever starts out perfect. It’s impossible to speak for everyone. There are lots of different activist groups, like the Chinatown Art Brigade and Decolonize This Place. We have to represent our interests and strong points. The American feminist movement has a complex history. To me, the centennial of women’s suffrage [in the US] is nothing to celebrate. Many people did not get to vote until the very late 20th century. There’s always been voter suppression in the United States and unfortunately, we’re preparing for an election where that might happen again. African-American women don’t have the same ease of voting. We need to double down and commit ourselves to universal suffrage as an unfulfilled desire of our culture.
It’s a retrograde time politically.
Yes, but perversely that’s when there’s the most interest in our work.
Guerrilla Girls did a poster for Trump’s New Commemorative Holidays.
We did that poster shortly after Trump was elected. He has attacked almost every one of the groups on that poster. We see all kinds of bias coming back into acceptance, which is frightening. We’re in a dire time, and everyone has to resist however they can.
What are the advantages of being a Guerrilla Girl?
Well, I know what the disadvantages are: never getting any credit for what you’re doing, not being able to tell your friends where you’re traveling. On the other hand, it’s great to have another persona you dive into. It’s a psychotherapist’s dream. When I’m tired of being Frida, I can go back and be myself, although I have to say I’m Frida most of the time now.
Frida is the alias you chose back in the 1980s?
At the time it was honorific – not meant to exploit Frida Kahlo. She is well known in Mexico, but, back then, was not so well known in the US. We took names of artists we thought people should know about, so every time someone talks about feminism in the art world to a Guerrilla Girl, they’re bringing up the memory of Frida Kahlo, say. If I were to do it again today, I might choose someone else.
Tina Modotti, an American photographer who stopped making art and worked for revolutions. Now, her work is being collected and valued more than ever before.
What do you think is the biggest issue globally right now?
Every Guerrilla Girl you would ask would give you a different answer.
Income inequality. The accumulation of wealth in the hands of so few is the largest problem. It’s the result of prejudice, discrimination, and greed – of capitalism gone wild. In the US art world, museums exist to promote the reputations of billionaires.
So, how can we change things?
Complain, apply pressure, and disrupt. Things we can do in the US might put people in jail in other places, so activists there have to be clever in different ways. Look at the demonstrations in Hong Kong, India and Moscow and you’ll see that artists are involved.
There’s more activism in art and society generally. Should there be a limit to call-out culture?
I haven’t seen it. I’ll let you know when I do. We support all forms of resistance. Repression has never led to great culture.
Guerrilla Girls: Reinventing the ‘F’ Word – Feminism! is at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki until 15 October 2019.
Also, at Art After Hours the Spinoff Art co-editor, Megan Dunn, will chair the panel session ‘One Step Forward Two Steps Back’ on gender representation in the New Zealand art world.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.