“Fighting discrimination with facts, humor and fake fur!”—that’s the motto of the internationally acclaimed anonymous activist artist group, The Guerrilla Girls. The Guerrilla Girls celebrated their 20th anniversary last year, and have no plans of stopping.
I spoke with Frida Kahlo, one of the founding members of the Guerrilla Girls, one early morning this summer. We also caught up a bit over email. The Guerrilla Girls are extremely busy with a lot of projects. Their next sighting will be at the Istanbul Modern Museum in Turkey, October 17 and 18.
How did the Guerrilla Girls come to be?
In 1985, the Museum of Modern Art opened after a renovation; they opened with a big international show on sculpture. In the show there were, I always forget exact numbers, there were almost 200 artists and there were only 15 women, and there were no artists of color. That was just so blatant and just so in your face. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the curator then made a statement to the press that anyone who wasn’t in the show should rethink his career! And that gave us an idea [Laughs] that there was probably a little bit of discrimination going on here. [Laughs]
So, a group of us went up to the museum and organized a very ordinary kind of protest with placards and chants, and at the end of the day we hadn’t really accomplished anything except make a lot of people coming in and out of the museum angry. They really didn’t want to hear any kind of questioning of the cultural institution of the museum. That’s when we realized that most people think that the art world, or at least at that time most people thought the art world was a meritocracy—that whatever ended up in a museum was the best there was. We were not exactly sure at that point how it all worked, but we knew that there was something wrong. And so a group of us decided that day that we were going to figure out some type of technique to expose it and make people think about the issue. And also participate in a dialogue about it.
That’s when we decided to have an anonymous organization and call ourselves Guerrillas, like freedom fighters, and put up anonymous posters in the middle of the night all over Soho, where the galleries were then, that just stated the facts. We put up posters that went after every sub group of the art world. First, we did the male artists that have shows in galleries that didn’t show women, because a lot of them had women in their lives who were artists that weren’t given the same opportunities. We went after galleries, we went after critics, we went after directors of museums, and we systematically put every separate group in the art world on alert that we were looking at their records and that they better do some explaining. Of course everyone wanted to say it was somebody else’s problem. Artists wanted to say it was the galleries’ problem. The galleries wanted to say it was the critics’ problem. And the critics said, “Oh, no, it’s the galleries’ fault because they never showed any women.” Everyone was passing the buck. And we wanted to put them all on alert that they were all participating consciously or unconsciously in a system that discriminated against women and people of color. And that the art world, as it existed then, in the mid-80s, did not fairly represent American culture.
Do you think the art world has improved? Is there more visibility for women and people of color in the art world?
It has gotten a little bit better although I think that there’s always a possibility that it could go back. There is a glass ceiling.
It’s a no-brainer really, that you can’t have a serious survey of American art without women or artists of color being part of the dialogue. And you can’t claim to represent American culture without including everyone within that culture.
But, as you start working up the pyramid, women and artist of color don’t get the same kind of opportunities for their work. They’re not collected at the same rate; they don’t get paid the same kind of money.
Contemporary art is really hot right now and has become a form of investment. While a few women artists participate in the art market at that level, the prices their work attracts are never the same as male artists with parallel careers and similar work. As long as the cultural significance of visual art is determined by how much money rich collectors are willing to spend to own it, we will have a visual culture determined by the marketplace. That’s a lousy way to identify and preserve the best of our culture.
How many Guerrilla Girls are there?
That’s a secret. Usually people think it’s a larger number than it really is. The fantasy of how many we are is better than the reality.
Did you pick the name Frida Kahlo yourself?
Yes. Early on we decided that we were anonymous. And we started getting requests for publicity and things that really needed pseudonyms, so we would project to the world the idea that there were many of us, not just one. And also, to keep alive the memories of dead female artists. At the time, Frida Kahlo was not as well known. She hadn’t been put into cult-like status yet.
Is there anything about Frida Kahlo personally that resonates with you?
I liked how fiery she was, and how she always spoke her own mind. Taking her name was really about reminding people about her.
The Guerrilla Girls also bring attention to the lack of women and people of color in Hollywood and in the media. Can you talk more about this?
We started doing these posters that each show one aspect of the situation of women artists. And after a while they started to add up to a larger picture, and it made us think about larger issues about our history, and so we wrote an art history book. We realized there’s always been this whole world that determines what’s high art. And then, thinking about how misogyny and patriarchy have survived for so long, we started examining larger issues like female stereotypes. We realized that there are so many more female than male stereotypes. Then we started thinking about popular culture and how women get boxed in, and how superficial judgments are made about them.
Movies are at the heart of popular culture. We realized in 2000, that Hollywood’s treatment of women and artists of color was worse than the art world was 15 years before. Hollywood has depicted itself as being liberal, ahead of the curve, edgy, when in fact Hollywood is not as good as more traditionally male professions. For example, no woman has ever won an Oscar for best director and only three have ever been nominated!
The Guerilla Girls worked on a protest billboard for this year’s Oscars to show the lack of women and people of color working within the movie industry. How long have you been doing this?
We’ve done three of them, and the last one was this year. We were able to rent billboard space in Hollywood and put the billboards up during the Academy Awards very close to where the Awards ceremony was held.
This year was the King Kong theme.
How was the response you received?
We always get great responses. Actually King Kong, or Queen Kong, however you want to describe it, the Queen Kong billboard has been translated into Spanish. And it has traveled around the world in a number of art shows.
What are some issues that the Guerrilla Girls are working on now?
Right now, we’re working on a lot of the same issues. We’ve been looking at the auction houses and we’ve been looking at the auction results. And we do a lot of outreach towards colleges, museums and art organizations. We’re thinking about doing a new book about women in Hollywood. We’re going to continue to do the billboard campaign. And we’re back to looking at the art world.
We’re not very systematic about what we do, so we wander all over issues that interest us. We’re actually doing a project at the moment for the Istanbul Modern, which deals with the state of women artists in Turkey. We’re also concerned with the global situation of human rights for women. We’re concerned about the erosion of women’s rights in this country, particularly reproductive rights. We’ve always wanted to do something about the body image of young girls; how the media collectively stresses out a generation of young women who believe they have to live up to some ideal of beauty and thinness. Eating disorders are on the rise, along with other kinds of psychological disorders related to body image.
Do you have any memorable experiences from speaking at schools and colleges?
Oh, gosh. So many of them! It would take me a week to think through them all! [Laughs] It’s always great to be recognized with our masks on, especially in a far away place. When we are in New York walking around the galleries, people come up to us and tell us stories. And we get letters from all over the world. One from a woman who saw our work at Tate Modern who was completely bored and bummed out about her art career until she saw our posters; they made her feel good. We’re professional complainers, our work is very critical, and it’s funny that our work makes women feel good! [Laughs]
Our work isn’t like a lot of political art that looks at a situation and points the finger to something and says it’s bad. Instead, we’ve developed a voice that’s humorous and maybe a little neurotic and hysterical. But we’ve found that if you can present a situation, a dire situation, in a kind of ironic way, you allow people to have their own humorous response to it and then you have a chance to change their minds. Make someone laugh and you’re halfway to the brain; you’ve got their attention. We usually ask some crazy unanswerable question or include information to sort of complicate the issue, and all of the spaces in between that allow a viewer to actually think about an issue and give [her/him] freedom or opportunity to change their minds.
Do people usually get it when you go on tour? Do you do lectures or presentations?
We do presentations; jazzed up slide lectures with power point images, videos, skits with the audience, and a Q & A with the audience. Oftentimes, people who come to our lectures already know who we are, but not always. [Laughs]
We get letters saying, “I never thought about feminism before your presentation.” Or, “Yes, I’m a feminist, and I’m not afraid to say it.” A lot of people agree with the tenets of feminism. They believe in reproductive rights for women, equal pay for equal work, social justice for all, global human rights for women, but stop short of calling themselves feminists because that word has been so demonized in our society. We’re not sure if we need a new word or we need a new campaign to resurrect the word we’ve got. What’s curious is that a lot of people think feminism means morereally don’t know. [Laughs] And that feminists are man haters. rights for women rather than equal rights. Where that comes from? I
Actually, we really believe that the solution to many of the world’s problems is for more men to become feminists. Women have to empower themselves and make demands for themselves. But if the guys don’t come along, it’s a battle. We need more male feminists in Afghanistan. A lot of guys think, “Oh, those are women’s problems. Let them take care of their own problems.” But it can’t happen without the other half of the world’s population.
In many parts of the world there are situations that are just heartbreaking. There was coverage in The New York Times about honor suicides in Turkey. Women who disgrace their families by choosing their own boyfriend or husband, or by having sex outside of marriage, are tortured until they kill themselves. That’s horrible.
Female genital mutilation in Africa. Women who are forbidden an education. Polygamous wives who have no property rights or parental rights to their children. Forced marriages. Child marriages. There are outrageously misogynist practices all over the world. A lot of the rights that women take for granted here, rights that have been won in past struggles, do not exist for women in many parts of the world.
Do you think feminism should look the same all around the world? For example, like it does in the U.S. And do you think different cultures and women of different cultures can interpret feminism differently?
Congratulations on the 20th anniversary of the Guerrilla Girls last year. Did you all celebrate together?
Thanks. Over the past year, we’ve had a couple of wonderful opportunities. We were asked to do a project for last year’s Venice Biennial that was a critical examination of the Biennial itself. It made us feel a little uncomfortable as professional complainers to be asked to criticize an institution from within it. And we were a little conflicted about that. We want to keep our edge and our critical outlook. It’s the line we walk all the time.
But we did a two-part project. One complained about the fact that most museums in Venice keep art by women in the basement. The other both praised and made fun of the Biennial’s record for showing women artists.
What is one message that the Guerrilla Girls try to get across?
We really think that feminism is a way of looking at the world and changing it. We believe that many world problems are related to the domination of women and they won’t be solved until everyone, everywhere, believes that all women everywhere deserve basic human rights.