It’s not every day that you see a bunch of women in gorilla masks, but last night at Union Theological Seminary’s Union Forum, real-life masked avengers and art legends the Guerrilla Girls gave their unique perspective on social justice. Spectator spoke to a founding member of the group, Frida Kahlo, before the event to find out more about her career, the art market, and student activism.
The Guerrilla Girls started in 1985 as a group of anonymous do-gooders who wanted to address feminist issues in the art world. They were spurred into action when, after a long renovation, the Museum of Modern Art reopened with an exhibit called “An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture.” Out of 169 artists, only 13 were women. The curator of the show released a statement to the press that said, “Any artist who is not in my show should rethink his career.”
Kahlo described this as the “aha” moment. “All of a sudden it was like, aha, there is both conscious and unconscious discrimination in the art world, and we wanted to ask some questions about it. So we asked the questions to the public and we did them in the form of posters, and we put the posters up in SoHo,” she said.
The women in the group called themselves “masked avengers,” and anonymously created posters and protested against the institutions they felt were treating women unfairly. Kahlo says that this anonymity was of great importance to the group because “we were all professional artists. … It was the way that we felt protected, and also it helped our message because it meant that we weren’t doing this for any personal gain and it really focused on the issues.”
Since then, the Guerrilla Girls have become art world sensations with their posters that ask things like: “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” and “When racism and sexism are no longer fashionable, what will your art collection be worth?” They’ve organized protests and conducted surveys of the percentage of female and African-American artists shown in museums across the country and abroad.
Today, several of the Guerrilla Girls’ posters are on display at MoMA, the institution that first sparked their outrage. Have the Guerrilla Girls now, after 25 years of fighting institutional inequality, been institutionalized themselves?
“We agonize about this all the time because we think of ourselves as professional complainers, but … perhaps the canon has expanded to include institutional critique,” Kahlo said. “We are very happy to have our work in public collections because it means that we are part of the record. There’s no way you can see the record of late 20th-century and 21st-century art without our critique in the middle of it.”
Indeed, one could look at the recent Whitney Biennial, which has been called the “Women’s Biennial,” alongside Marina Abramović’s much talked-about, infamous solo show at MoMA, and conclude that including women in art institutions really has become a trend. “Let’s hope it is a new trend,” Kahlo said, “but just because a show is 51 percent women, which is our proportion in the general population, why call it the women’s show? Do we call the other shows guys’ shows?”
“Art schools have been more than 50 percent women for decades,” she continued, “and if you look at the percentage of women who make it in the art market, it is far fewer than that—so something happens to those women to keep them out, and I think it’s about time that we start thinking about that.”
One of the proclaimed goals of the Guerilla Girls is to reveal the forgotten and give attention to the overlooked in the art world. Kahlo said that while issues have changed since 1985, “exclusion and elitism and discrimination take different forms every generation.”
“When we started in 1985, we didn’t realize that tokenism would become a problem. During the age of multiculturalism, a lot of institutions started to play catch-up, but they played catch-up with one or two women artists or artists of color,” she said. “To include one woman or one artist of color in a show sounds like progress, but we had to step back and say, ‘Wait a minute, whoa, whoa, is this a solution or is this a continuation of the problem?’”
Kahlo said that there are plenty of ways for students today to get involved in social justice projects. “We encourage students to do the kinds of things that we do in their own name, to invent their own crazy activist identities. The world needs more feminist avenger groups than just one.” She said to “keep making trouble and acting up”—students should “write a letter, find other people who feel the same way, and figure out some kind of crazy way to complain.”
The Guerrilla Girls’ visit is the first in a series for the Institute for Art, Religion, and Social Justice’s Union Forum. The next forum on Oct. 6 features artist AA Bronson.