Guerrilla Girls

Guerrilla Girls: “Conscience of the Art World”

Image from header of the Guerrilla Girls website.
https://www.guerrillagirls.com/our-story/

 

       The year was 1985. 14 years earlier, writer Linda Nochlin published the feminist essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”, a piece of writing which blamed the society, education system, and art world for women’s inability to reach the same artistic notoriety as their male counterparts. And just a year prior in 1984, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City held an exhibit that was titled International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture, an event which invited contemporary artists to showcase their work. It was revealed that out of the one hundred sixty-nine up-and-coming artists that were acknowledged at the exhibit, only thirteen were women.

        Outraged by how blatantly unequal the ratio of men to women’s work that was recognized in the art world, individuals clad in gorilla masks to hide their faces marched through the streets, bold posters and adhesive in hand. These self-titled “Guerrilla Girls” were on a mission – a mission to expose the discrimination and injustices in the art world.

       At the beginning of this semester, we learned about the importance of the “anon” designer in this course. It was said that just because a name isn’t associated to a work (or works) does not make it any less important to the world of design. The Guerrilla Girls are a prime example of the impact anonymous designers can have on society.

       The name “Guerrilla Girls” in itself is a testament to the group’s wit, thoughtfulness, and sense of humor. They use wordplay to replace the word “gorilla”, which references their use of gorilla masks in public, with the homophone “guerrilla” meaning “a member of a small independent group taking part in irregular fighting, typically against larger regular forces”, according to Dictionary.com. Not only is their name a pun – the use of the term guerrilla is very appropriate for their cause. The Guerrilla Girls described themselves as a group of “feminist activist artists. [who] wear gorilla masks in public and use facts, humor and outrageous visuals to expose gender and ethnic bias as well as corruption in politics, art, film, and pop culture”(Guerrilla Girls). In addition to wearing these rather humorous looking masks in public, the members also adopted pseudonyms of deceased women artists or creative minds such as Frida Kahlo, Rosalba Carriera, Lee Krasner, Gertrude Stein, and Zora Neale Hurston (Seiferle). The purpose using these measures of anonymity was to put an emphasis on their work and not let their own personalities distract from the main message of their work and demonstrations and to prevent there being any attacks on their professional lives outside of participating in this radical movement. In addition, using these names as a proxy also served the purpose of connecting them to their female artist predecessors. At the time, most female artists that we know well today were not even taught about in schools or history classes, so by taking on these aliases, they were also drawing attention to the the artists’ absence in textbooks.

     The style of posters, billboards, flyers and prints produced by the Guerrilla Girls developed over time. Their work began as simple text based posters and stickers that made direct statements about certain people and art organization. The Guerrilla Girls took inspiration from from artists and designers Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger. From the works of Holzer, they learned that developing straightforward text based compositions with words pointing to social commentary have the ability to make an impact on the audience in their simplicity. Their use of bold, bright, declarative statements overlaid on pictures was influenced by Kruger. From these concepts, they started to develop their own style of posters. Although their works changed throughout the decades, they still maintained consistency through adapting their pieces to the style of advertising in order to appeal to the eye of the consumer.

      Once the Guerrilla Girls grabbed people’s attention with their stylistic choices, they bombarded the reader with facts and figures, which were presented in a humorous, sarcastic, and witty manner. One of their most well known posters “The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist” uses satire and sarcasm to bring attention to the problems and insecurities woman face in their careers as artists. Some of the lines from the print read: “The advantages of being a woman artist: working without the pressure of success… Knowing your career might pick up after you’re eighty… Not having to undergo the embarrassment of being called a genius”(Gorilla Girls). A lot of their early work was like this – a simple black sans serif font overlayed on a white background, but with a facetious statement or statements that attack the system of the art world.  Their work evolved over time as the culture of advertising did, incorporating brighter colors like pinks and yellows into their compositions to be eye catching to their consumer-minded audience.

       The Guerrilla Girls’ work could be best described as simple, but very blunt, shocking, witty, and bold. They were not afraid to call out people or organizations who they believed were being discriminatory and not as diverse as they claimed to be. The Guerrilla Girls usually put these works in close proximity to or even in the art museums themselves, galleries, and exhibitions around NYC. They made it clear who they were talking to and what they wanted from these establishments, and at the time, this was one of the elements that made their work controversial. By making their work direct and sometimes using outrageous imagery, these women wanted to make their work shocking in order to get people’s attention, start discussions around them, and maybe even intimidate people.

       The Guerrilla Girls have made it a long way from wielding buckets of wheat paste and flyers. Today, they have “done hundreds of projects (posters, actions, books, videos, stickers) all over the world, including Bilbao, Iceland, Istanbul, London, Los Angeles, Mexico City, New York, Rotterdam, Sao Paolo, and Shanghai”(Guerrilla Girls). They are still active, holding exhibitions of their own and criticizing the unfair practices of others. Their work has inspired many, including artists Micol Hebron and Coco Fusco. It is known that two original founding members remain active in the group – the women who go by the names Frida Kahlo and Kathe Kollwitz. The Guerrilla Girls continue today to fight for more acceptance and inclusivity of minorities in our society. Their scope has widened to not just raise awareness for female artists but also bring attention to race issues, homophobia and discrimination against members of the LGBTQ+ community, sexism, and other social injustices faced in the modern world. It is believed that approximately one hundred women have participated in this group, but because of their anonymity, one can only estimate. When asked about the number of women who were affiliated with the Guerrilla Girls, Kahlo and Kollwitz responded “We don’t have any idea. We secretly suspect that all women are born Guerrilla Girls. It’s just a question of helping them discover it. For sure, thousands; probably, hundreds of thousands; maybe, millions” (Seiferle).

       In 2015, the Guerrilla Girls celebrated their thirtieth anniversary since their formation in 1985. Many art establishments and curators have taken it upon themselves to honor the work of these bold feminist artists and their significance to art through the decades. According to the New York Times, “[in 2014], the Whitney Museum of American Art acquired the group’s portfolio of 88 posters and ephemera from 1985 to 2012” and “The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis also bought the Guerrilla Girls’ entire collection of posters, in numbered prints, which were originally plastered on walls, phone booths and galleries in SoHo”(Ryzik). Through their designs, they were able to reconstruct the links between art and politics, reinvented activism, and break ground for more feminist groups to emerge.

 

Sources Cited

            Guerrilla Girls. “OUR STORY.” Guerrillagirls.com, https://www.guerrillagirls.com/our-story/.

            Ryzik, Melena. “The Guerrilla Girls, After 3 Decades, Still Rattling Art World Cages.” The New York Times, 5 Aug. 2015,        https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/09/arts/design/the-guerrilla-girls-after-3-decades-still-rattling-art-world-cages.html.

             Seiferle, Rebecca. “The Guerrilla Girls Artist Overview and Analysis.” TheArtStory.org, http://www.theartstory.org/artist-guerrilla-girls.htm.