Feminist guerilla reclaims the arts for all
Guerilla Girls activist Frida Kahlo discusses the gender gap in art appreciation and her organization’s attempt to end it.
On Monday, Nov. 7, a fur-trimmed Frida Kahlo flung a “magical banana” across Given Auditorium, one that she claimed had the power to turn you into a feminist. Her use of the “f” word—feminist—did not stop there, as she described her work as the co-founder of the Guerilla Girls, a group of “gorilla-masked feminist avengers—anonymous activists who work under the assumed names of dead female artists—who tackle sexism and racism in the art world and beyond, through poster campaigns, billboards, books and presentations.”
The Guerilla Girls started in response to the 1985 Museum of Modern Art exhibit, “An International Survey of Painting and Sculpture,” which only showcased 13 female artists out of a total of 169. Upon further research they were appalled to find just how pervasive this state of inequality was, and so they decided to circulate two controversial posters around New York City’s SoHo district. “Who knew the two posters would cause a major conflict or lead to hundreds of others? Who knew we would end up inside the very museums that we criticized?” Kahlo said.
The feminist superheroes now call themselves “the conscience of the art world,” and they’ve chosen humor as their activist form of choice. From an interview in their first book, Confessions of the Guerrilla Girls, published in 1995, a member under the pseudonym Paula Modersohn-Becker commented, “Our situation as women and artists of color in the art world was so pathetic, all we could do was make fun of it. It felt so good to ridicule and belittle a system that excluded us. There was also that stale idea that feminists don’t have a sense of humor.”
Indeed, Kahlo’s presentation showcased the group’s intelligent wit and sarcasm. Even her presentation of herself was a humorous display, as she entered the talk clad in all black and sporting a woolly gorilla mask with an open mouth, fangs hanging out, eyes all to be revealed to the audience as she casually sipped on an orange silly straw so as to not wet her fur. The same type of humor is prevalent in the poster, billboard and book campaigns that Kahlo highlighted, such as the 1988 “The Advantages of Being A Woman Artist” poster. “Not having to choke on those big cigars or paint in Italian suits,” and “being reassured that whatever type of art you make will be labeled feminine,” are just two of the sentiments the poster features.
Others, such as the 1995 “Do Women Have to be Naked to get into the Met. Museum” poster, call attention to such striking statistics like, “Less than 5 percent of the artists in the modern art sections are women, but 85 percent of the nudes are female.” The poster accompanies this fact with a visual of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’ “Grande Odalisque,” wearing the group’s signature gorilla mask.
Kahlo also discussed the group’s focus on gender inequality in Hollywood. The group rented billboards blocks away from where the Academy Awards were held in 2002 to present ads stating, “The Anatomically Correct Oscar: He’s White and Male Just Like the Guys Who Win,” and “Unchain the Women Directors,” which displayed a fettered King Kong look-alike in a hot pink dress clutching an Oscar.
The Guerilla Girls also publish books, which Kahlo elaborated on in her presentation. The Guerrilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art, published in 1998, discusses some of the female artists who, despite her talent, are often excluded from traditional art history textbooks. Others, such as Bitches, Bimbos and Ballbreakers: The Guerilla Girls’ Illustrated Guide to Female Stereotypes, published in 2003, deconstructs stereotypes such as the dumb blonde, the Barbie, the “bitch” etc. Upon discussing the “bitch” in particular, Kahlo implored the audience to reassess whether being a bitch is such a bad thing, and called out for the “bitches of the world to unite.” Their most recent book, The Guerrilla Girls’ Hysterical Herstory of Hysteria and How it Was Cured, published in 2010, explains some of the ways the female body has been treated over the centuries.
To close the presentation, Kahlo asked for a male, feminist volunteer from the audience to help her put on a short skit depicting a telephone conversation Village Voice reporter Elizabeth Hess had with art dealer Arnold Glimcher about the New York Times Magazine feature of his “Art World All-Stars,” and the lack of any females within this group. The Guerilla Girls created a poster addressing this front cover, declaring “Hormone Imbalance. Melanin Deficiency,” under the original photograph, which was what originally inspired Hess to reach out to Glimcher.
Ismael Perez ’13 volunteered and was instead surprised to find that Kahlo wanted him to cross-dress in a strapless pink minidress (which he thought was a skirt) and a headband with a bow. As the Guerilla Girl pretended to smoke her cigar, Perez did his best “girl voice,” and the two acted out what Kahlo described to be “an important moment in contemporary art history.” Not surprisingly, the dialogue pointed out some of the sexism and bigotry in the art world.
In her summary, Kahlo reviewed what it was she wanted the audience to take away from the presentation: “Realize change doesn’t just happen—we’ve been at this for 26 years,” she said. “Invent your own way of becoming an activist, an artist. Invent your own way of becoming a feminist.”
At both the beginning of the presentation and at its end Kahlo did a quick poll of the number of people in the audience who identified themselves as a feminist. She stated her goal was to “change people’s mind about the ‘f’ word as many believe in the tenets, but don’t identify with the word. This is the great civil rights movement of our time.”