The hairy history of the Guerrilla Girls is a readymade guide to resistance. For 31 years, the feminist art activism collective has tirelessly protested inequality at major museums through wordplay and design. In the process, they've proved that comedy and community are far more fun than institutionalized bigotry. Following their lead, young activists taking to the streets to protest the President-elect might find, as the Girls did, that there is an art to activism and asking the right questions.
The guerrilla gorilla movement started in the spring of 1985, when seven women stood outside the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in garish primate masks to protest the blatant sexism of the institution's inaugural exhibition in its newly-renovated building. Out of 169 artists included in MoMA's survey of contemporary painting and sculpture, only 13 were female. Post-picketing, the Girls took to Lower Manhattan, postering the neighborhood with their message and their outrage.
Since then, the Guerrilla Girls have become an iconic, ironic art institution, and museums like MoMA now consider them part of the same art history the Girls have spent three decades critiquing. The group itself has also changed in the intervening years. It has included more than 55 members of all ages, backgrounds, and identifications, been through legal turmoil and internal strife, and gained two sister organizations peopled by former members: Guerrilla Girls BroadBand and Guerrilla Girls on Tour! One thing has not changed, however: the Guerrilla Girls have never curbed their indignation at inequality in the art world.
Take two of the Girls’ latest acts of cultural whistleblowing: their new show, Is it even worse in Europe? at London’s Whitechapel Gallery and their accompanying Complaints Department at the Tate Modern. The Creators Project covered the former, which was a play on the group's 1986 poster It's even worse in Europe. Over the course of summer 2016, Guerrilla Girls investigated the legacy of gender imbalance in European museums and galleries by sending questionnaires to hundreds of institutions. The show was quickly followed and complemented by The Complaints Department, a workshop that invited museumgoers to voice their opinions and arguments face-to-face with the Girls during “office hours.”
In the wake of these explosive exhibitions, The Creators Project caught up with a founding member of Guerrilla Girls to chat about activism in the digital age and glean some tips for creative complaining:
The Creators Project: I want to begin by asking, which members of the group am I speaking to?
Käthe Kollwitz: I am Käthe Kollwitz, one of the founders.
What were the most shocking discoveries you made while conducting last summer's surveys for Is it even worse in Europe?
We sent questionnaires about diversity and museum practices to 383 institutions. 101 responded. How they presented themselves was so interesting that part of the exhibition is devoted to their answers. One museum told us that art by women was very important to them but then revealed that they only had 12% women artists in their collection!
From Guerrilla Girls' formative years to your latest projects: which factors have recurringly halted systemic change in arts institutions?
Museums say they have the best and most important art, but most really represent the taste of the wealthiest art collectors in the world, who are advised by a cartel of multinational art galleries. Maybe that’s why so many museums show work by the same artists over and over again. The Guerrilla Girls believe that art is global, boundless, and shouldn't be reduced to a small number of artists who have a popularity contest in the art marketplace. Unless the art in a museum is as diverse as the culture it’s supposed to represent, it isn’t telling the history of art. It’s telling the history of wealth and power.
Why do you think the opportunity to literally join a conversation, like through The Complaints Department, is important?
"Oh, the Guerrilla Girls! What a bunch of complainers." That’s what we are often called, and it’s true. But we are creative complainers, and our complaining has made a difference. So when the Tate invited us to do a weeklong interactive project, we decided to give everyone a chance to complain. Thousands came to the museum and put up complaints about all sorts of issues, including complaints about the Tate itself.
How has social media changed the Guerrilla Girls?
In the beginning, we would put up a few posters on the streets of New York, and in a day they would be gone—covered with other posters or torn off the walls. Now, thanks to social media, our work can reach hundreds of thousands of people all over the world. We get so many messages, from people aged 8 to 80, telling us that our work inspired them to do their own crazy, creative activism.
In a similar vein, what would your advice be to young activists coping with and responding to the immediacy of online criticism?
We say: Just do one thing. If it works, do another. If it doesn’t, do another. Don’t be paralyzed because you can’t do everything or because someone criticizes you. Also, make sure your activism work communicates by test driving it first. Show it to a few people and see if they get what you are trying to say. Just try to be more effective next time.
Do mass culture feminist figures help or hinder the feminist cause?
We think everyone should stand up for feminism, and that means everyone, no matter what gender, background, [etc]. Feminism is one of the great human rights movements, along with Civil Rights, LGBTQ rights, Black Lives Matter, etc. It is changing the world, revolutionizing human thought, and giving many people lives previous generations could never have imagined. Feminist resistance movements are exploding all over the world. There is still so much work to do!
What have you learned about activism that you didn't expect to learn during your time with the group?
We began with a new idea about how to construct political art, using facts and humor, and twist an issue around to present it in a way that hasn’t been seen before, in the hope of changing people’s minds. We didn’t know that it would add up to something—that the cumulative effect of keeping up the pressure makes the whole of the work more than the sum of its parts.
Finally, what advice do you wish you had been given before starting your career under the mask?
That we would be stuck in that thing for our whole lives! It's hot in there! On the other hand, you won’t believe what comes out of your mouth when you are wearing a gorilla mask.
See and read more work by the Guerrilla Girls on their website.