Since 1985, the Guerrilla Girls have been ‘creatively complaining’ about discrimination in the art world. The all-female group are notoriously devious, assuming the identities of dead female icons such as Gertrude Stein and Frida Kahlo, while donning their iconic gorilla masks. For the art activists, anonymity is key, as it keeps the focus on their work as opposed to their personalities. As the self-proclaimed ‘conscience of the art world’, the girls employ witty and rebellious ways to call out institutions for their inherent gendered and racial prejudices. Their mission is to embarrass and humiliate so that under the scrutinizing eye of the public, these traditional institutions and museums are compelled to change their ways.
It was the MOMA’s exhibition An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture in 1984 that spurred on a rather frustrated set of feminists to form the Guerrilla Girls. The exhibition apparently celebrated the best artists in the world; however, of the 169 artists, only 10% were female. Then to make matters worse, Kynaston McShine added that ‘any artist who wasn’t in the show should re-think his career’.
A year after, the girls responded by forming their own idiosyncratic style of protest. By adopting the visual language of advertising and consumer culture, the group began to plaster the streets of New York with flyers, posters and stickers. Through combining striking imagery, bold text and statistics based on extensive research, the group named and shamed critics, artists, curators, dealers and museums that they believed were complicit in the exclusion of female artists.
Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into The Met. Museum, 1989.
A particularly famous Guerrilla Girls’ poster is the parody of Jean Auguste-Dominque Ingres’s painting Odalisque and Slave, 1842. Alongside the reclining nude, the eponymous question reads ‘Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into The Met. Museum?’ The statistic below ‘less than 5% of artists in Modern Art sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female’ ironically answers the posed question.
During March this year, the Guerrilla Girls had their first dedicated exhibition in the UK, which was titled ‘Even Worse in Europe?’. The White Chapel Gallery commissioned the group to ask the curators of 383 galleries to see whether their exhibitions were including all the voices of culture. The questionnaires tested their gender and racial diversity; one example included ‘what percentage of artists (not works) in your collection are women?’
Of the many galleries (3/4s in fact) that didn’t respond, viewers were encouraged to trample upon their names—these galleries were included in a poster displayed on the floor. Copies of the returned questionnaires were posted upon the walls of the gallery—some were typed and some handwritten, a few were defensive and others were brief. The questionnaires enabled each gallery to stop and reflect, while helping accumulate a substantial amount of data concerning diversity in the art world.
The Guerrilla Girls outline that, despite the growing ‘trend’ of feminism, gender and racial inequality is still very much prevalent. One of their projects last year showed that the galleries they had criticised for representing only 10% of female artists, had only increased to a mere 20%. So, equipped with a mantra to ‘make even more trouble’, the Guerrilla Girls promise to carry on complaining until the statics in the art world prove more equal.