The Guerrilla Girls

The Guerilla Girls are an artist collective aimed at fighting sexism and racism in fine arts. They began their work in 1984 when an exhibition appeared at the Museum of Modern Art that included 165 artists but only 13 women and no people of colour. As other significant art museums had similar norms of overlooking talented women artists and policies against allowing women to have solo exhibitions, they formed to target these blatant systems of oppression within the art world. The Guerrilla Girls filled the space, calling themselves “the Conscience of the Art World.” They operate anonymously, wearing gorilla masks and using pseudonyms of famous female artists, like Frieda Kahlo and Gertrude Stein, which protects the identities of working artists from facing a backlash from the same institutions. Over time, they’ve gathered significant clout: between 1985 and 2014 they held at least 240 exhibitions across the world.

The Guerilla Girls were and are a very vocal opposition to a homogenous art and political landscape occupied predominantly by white men. Their design is informed by the civil rights movements for African American and gay rights in the 1960’s and 1970’s, as well as activism from the feminist movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s, and this spirit of rebellion against social institution is part of their impetus. The Guerilla Girls have created very shocking and startling work that is in line with many 20th century expressions of art, but their political message inform the deeper, insidious truths about the world that we live in. The organization continues to operate currently, having split into three distinct organizations in the original moniker.

The Guerrilla Girls helped create art of revolution, strong politically jarring realities composed of collage, block texts, and photomontage to portray injustice. Their works are an example of design being used to achieve a social goal or end, rather than simply to exist. They created works for the mass public by imitating popular media strategies, as a way of informing people of different societal trends, and they laid the foundation for poster design of important social justice movements, such as Black Lives Matter today. The group is also well known for creating engaging work that incorporates humor into large structural issues to create a space for accessible conversations about feminism and racism to occur.

The Guerilla Girls were assembled to mobilize the art world to be inclusive of designers on the basis of merit rather than white, male status. Initially, the collective did not have much effect but as eyes began to catch notice, they became more politically influential and expanded their scope to include Hollywood, mass media, art censorship, government corruption and apathy, and the battle for reproductive rights. The infusion of politics into art was unheard of at the time, and their groundwork in social justice and feminism allowed them to create ripples not only in the more conservative art world, but also in the more liberal tradition which resented ideas of quotas in exhibitions.

This designer works exclusively in poster design, creating posters, stickers, and billboards out of dark blocky print text and images, using cut and paste techniques including collage and photomontage. The style imitated a number of designs from marketing campaigns, effectively selling this version of feminism in a palatable way to the public. The frankness combined with a sense of humour leaves viewers both entertained but reflective on the society that we live in. It is also a kind of performance art, one that involves stickers in large, wealthy neighbourhoods and outside of art institutions, but includes performances, protests, lectures, installations, and limited-edition prints as part of an organization of over 60 members.

The Guerrilla Girls designs are avant-garde and bold. Their work is socially conscious and abrasive, working to use shock value to advance their artistic and political ends. Often, this shock comes from stating facts and statistics about specific issues, as in the famous “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” poster, which heralds the statement “Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female” superimposed upon a famous nude, Grande Odalisque by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres.

The most significant event in the creation of the Guerrilla Girls was the debut of the 1984 Museum of Modern Art exhibition, International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture. The Women’s Caucus organized a march in protest but it fell on deaf ears. The Guerilla Girls thought they could bring issues like this to light in a more creative, media-savvy way and therefore came to be in 1985. But another was the publication of a famous feminists essay called “Why have there been no great women artists?” in 1971 by Linda Nochlin, an art historian. The essay calls into question a number of pervasive structural stereotypes in the art world that have prevented the rise of famous female artists, or even recognition and reverence for those who managed to produce spectacular work throughout history. Second wave feminism and activist strategies, centred around equal treatment in ‘sex, family, the workplace, reproductive rights, de facto inequalities, and official legal inequalities’ also heavily influenced the approach that the Guerrilla Girls took to their activism.

The Guerrilla Girls continue to operate into modern day as three separate entities: Guerrilla Girls, Inc. was founded by two original members of the Guerilla Girls along with other members to continue the tradition of provocative text, visuals and humor to inspire social change and commentary on systems of oppression within the art world. They pursued multiple projects outside of the original design, writing books and creating conversation in film, politics, and pop culture. Guerrilla Girls On Tour (GGOT) is a touring theatre started by three former members, developing plays, performances, and street theatre about women’s history and confronts the lack of women and artists of color in the performing arts. GuerrillaGirlsBroadBand, Inc. was formed by a founding Guerrilla Girl and other upcoming feminists and artists of color. “The Broads” comment on more taboo subjects of feminism within the fashion industry.