Still anonymous and still committed to action, the Guerrilla Girls just keep chipping away at the patriarchy. Dorothy Max Prior talks to the legendary masked avengers of the art world about campaigns past and present, including their latest, The Male Graze
‘Frida Kahlo has joined your meeting’ is possibly the best Zoom alert ever… Especially as also in the room is the German Expressionist painter and printmaker Käthe Kollwitz.
Let me explain. When art activist collective Guerrilla Girls were founded in 1985, it was decided that anonymity was the way to go – hence the iconic gorilla masks worn by the group members when appearing in public spaces. To further hide their identities, each Guerrilla Girl adopted the name of a dead woman artist. Hence me speaking to Frida Kahlo and Käthe Kollwitz.
So the first question, quite naturally, is why each chose their particular dead woman artist alter-ego.
‘I chose Frida Kahlo because she’s an artist whose work I’m crazy about,’ says our Frida, ‘and whose life I find fascinating’. She goes on to say that her own personality is quite different to that of the original Frida Kahlo.
Käthe comes in with a reflection on her assumed identity: ‘Käthe Kollwitz, like me, was a political artist – an artist who pushed forward a better world for people, creating anti-war work, work about women’s position in society, using art as a tool to change the world for the better.’
Both Frida and Käthe are founder members of Guerrilla Girls, working right at the heart of every campaign – from those seminal early days right through to the current project The Male Graze, commissioned for Art Night 2021, which can be seen on billboards at sites across the UK, and online anywhere, from 18 June to 18 July.
So before we talk about the latest work, I take advantage of having two GG founders in the (virtual) room to ask about the origins of the group and those wonderful early campaigns – I’m keen to hear the story, even though I know the story, as I’ve had the posters on my walls for decades, and can recite the headlines unprompted. Favourites include: Do Women Have to be Naked to get into the Met. Museum?; The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist; and Dear Art Collector, it has come to our attention…
Here’s Käthe: ’Before we formed as an entity, we had the idea to do a new kind of political poster. We were a bunch of women artists in New York in the 1980s who, after a wave of feminism in the 60s and 70s, realised things had gotten worse. We went to a demo outside MoMA’s International Survey of Painting and Sculpture. On the picket line we saw that the strategy wasn’t working, people just walked on by into the museum…’
She feels that people thought that the museum knew best – if you weren’t being shown, it was because you weren’t good enough. ‘We knew this wasn’t true,’ says Käthe, ‘we knew that there were so many amazing women artists and artists of colour left out of this system’.
That was the ‘aha’ moment. They decided that rather than do the traditional protest thing of picket lines, they needed to fight art with art – to put something up on the streets to show people the stark truth.
‘We didn’t have a plan,’ says Frida, ‘We were angry and wanted to speak out in the world and transform people’s views. After thirty-five years it’s become a mission… ‘ Thirty-six years, Käthe corrects, and they both laugh. Time flies when you’re having fun and changing the world.
Those early poster campaigns are striking both in their graphic punch and their take-no-prisoners political approach. Many are signed ‘A public service message from Guerrilla Girls – conscience of the art world’. A few things to note about these early campaigns: First, that it wasn’t just the galleries being targeted. Sponsors, critics, and even artists themselves are hauled over the coals. What Do These Artists Have in Common? (followed by a long list of names), says one poster. Answer: they allow their work to be shown in galleries that show no more than 10% women artists or none at all.
Secondly, we note that racism is flagged up alongside sexism right from the very start: What’s Fashionable, Prestigious & Tax Deductible? Discriminating Against Woman and Non-White Artists, proclaims one 1987 poster. Alongside the posters came postcards, calling cards, and stickers, often targeting specific galleries or events. Why in 1987 is Documenta 95% white and 83% male? asks one, and We Sell White Bread says a famous sticker, Ingredients: white men, artificial flavourings, preservatives. Contains less than the minimum daily requirement of white women and non-whites.
In 1990 came the first of the giant billboard posters, and that decade sees an extension of their work: whilst continuing to target the art world, there are campaigns run in collaboration with New York homeless shelters; campaigns supporting A Woman’s Right to Choose; posters highlighting the continuing prevalence of rape; posters advocating a better education system.
‘When the first posters [about women artists and the art world] worked, we realised we could take this strategy – the headlines, the outrageous imagery, all backed up by facts – and take on any subject: anti-war, issues of systemic racism, corruption…’ says Käthe.
Frida adds: ‘What was operating – although we didn’t necessarily understand it at first – was the idea of intersectionality. The problems and limitations and issues of privilege are all inter-related. The art world is part of the rest of the world, even though a lot of people like to think of it as its own bubble. Everything that’s wrong in our larger capitalist society is doubly wrong in the art world, but no one really looked at it this way, as they saw the art world as a refuge from the rest of the world – when in fact many of the awful things that go on [in the wider world] happen in the art world too, maybe even in a more magnified way’. Hence, the art attack goes on – alongside other work.
We talk briefly here about other art activist groups like the Extinction Rebellion aligned group Red Rebels; and other political/social activist campaigns such as Black Lives Matter. So yes, Guerrilla Girls do sometimes do street actions, and also have a performance piece that they take into schools: ‘Students often get really excited and want to do their own work to push things forward.’
Which brings me to ask whether anybody can be a Guerrilla Girl – to which the answer is that the collective is actually quite a close-held group, and although there have been times when people (particularly women artists) have been asked to publicly put their names to a specific campaign – most amusingly in the Guerrilla Girls Identities Revealed campaign – for the most part the GGs keep a tight reign on the membership.
‘We’re not as large a group as one might think – you can’t do the type of things we do in large groups. And if we were to work with everybody who wanted to work with us, we’d spend all our time managing people and things. The truth of the matter is, we do things in a very informal way. When we need help or certain skill-sets, we find individuals we can work with. Being in a collective and collaborating is not something you can do with everybody.’
So the bad news is that not every one who wants to work with the Guerrilla Girls can, but here’s the good news:
‘They don’t need us!’ says Frida. ‘We could operate as a model for similar actions in other places. We think the world needs more – more feminist activists, more masked avengers, than just this single group, the Guerrilla Girls. It would be a much scarier place if there were 10, 15, 20 a 100 similar groups…’
We then talk about some of the group’s recent campaigns, and in particular ones that have been commissioned by and placed in British galleries. One that grabbed my attention was the performative Complaints Department hosted by Tate Modern in London (2016) which Käthe describes as an example of creative complaining, ‘because we do do a lot of complaining about what’s going on in the world!’
The GGs have always loved to do interactive work, she says, to do things in which ‘we get something back in some way’. They’ve done several installations which have involved big chalkboards, and when Tate Modern asked them to do a special project in their new building, ‘we set up all these giant chalkboards, and big tables full of materials so people could write and do whatever they wanted’. Thousands came and did just that – came along to complain about art, about their lives, about people in their lives, about politics. ‘Every issue you could imagine.’
Another is the Is It Really Worse in Europe? project which came to Whitechapel Gallery in 2016, a continuation of the group’s four-decade-long critique of museum culture. Frida talks of the private investment system of gallery governance in the US, which she says is ‘run like a small poker game. It’s not so very different to the days of kings and queens and aristocrats. A few rich people are deciding what should be preserved and conserved – and that’s a lousy way to write art history’.
For this campaign, they sent out out a questionnaire to all the major galleries in Europe, urging them to identify what their problems were. Close to 400 were sent out, with around 100 responding. The 300 who didn’t respond weren’t left out of the exhibition – their names were on the floor of the gallery, trampled on by visitors. ‘We then took tidbits out of their responses,’ says Frida, noting that they also made a book of all the responses. ‘The interesting thing is that they mostly thought they were doing better than they actually were’. Like the Reina Sofia of Madrid, for example, that ‘thinks about diversity all the time’ despite its collection being 87% male and overwhelmingly white.
Perhaps it’s not surprising, with private collectors running the show in the States, that most major exhibitions and retrospectives of the Guerrilla Girls’ work have been outside of their home country. But back in New York the Guerrilla Girls have come full circle recently with a campaign targeted at MoMA – in particular, criticising the naming of the new(ish) Jeffrey Epstein galleries. Käthe has plenty to say on this:
‘There are so many board members on museums who have nefarious connections to all sorts of things – drugs dealing, arms dealing, sexual abuse, sex trafficking. When news started to come out that Leon Black, chair of the board at MOMA, was deeply, deeply involved with Jeffrey Epstein, we started going after him, in many different ways. One way was to put a poster up outside MOMA telling them to fire Leon Black’.
Another recent campaign saw the Guerrilla Girls helpfully providing wall labels for works of art created by abusers, an example being the Bill Clinton painting by Chuck Close, ‘a portrait of an abuser by an abuser!’. The poster campaign reads: 3 Ways to Write a Museum Wall Label When the Artist is a Sexual Predator. The first is the usual type of label, for museums ‘afraid of alienating billionaire trustees’. The second is the hedging-your-bets type for ‘conflicted’ museums. The third is one for museums who ‘need help from the Guerrilla Girls’. The one for Chuck Close’s portrait of Bill Clinton reads: ‘Chuck Close has had a huge career with prices to match. He has been accused of sexually abusing models, and students he picked up at fancy art schools. How fitting and ironic that he painted the official portrait of Bill Clinton. The art world tolerates abuse because it believes art is above it all, and rules don’t apply to “genius” white male artists. WRONG!’
Which brings us neatly to the latest work, The Male Graze.
There are two aspects to this work. One is the billboards in 11 locations in the UK which ask, Are There More Naked Women Than Women Artists in Art Museums? encouraging people to go to any gallery and count the number of naked women in artworks versus the number of women artists (a kind of back-to-their-roots throwback to that seminal Do Women Have to Be Naked to Get Into the Met. Museum? campaign). These figures can be uploaded on to the new dedicated website at themalegraze.com
The other part of The Male Graze is a typically fiery and funny critique of Western art history and flagging up of the intrinsic abuse and misogyny of the art world, explored through other sections of the website, which have racy titles like Flesh Through the Ages and Arts School Confidential. A quick click on Flesh Through the Ages brings up a gallery subdivided into sections that include Sexy and Dead, and Naked with Animals.
Talking of why reflections on the female nude remain pertinent well into the 21st century, Frida says ‘the more you look at Western art work – European and US art – the more you realise that objectification of women is intrinsic, in the work, and in the culture… Often, in the paintings, the women are naked and if they are not being spied upon, they are being acted upon – harassed, seduced, abducted, raped, murdered. Sexual violence is part of our culture and has become part of our artistic tradition. Oftentimes it gets shoved under the table, because the paintings are beautiful. We wanted to focus on that a little bit. We think a deeper understanding of Western art is dependent on talking about the subject matter in art, and what is happening to women as subjects in Western art. Because if we are going to deal with sexual violence in our culture, we have to understand how it has been expressed in our art. So that’s what we wanted to do in The Male Graze’
‘When we looked at Western art, there’s this idea about “the male gaze” but when we thought about the male gaze, we saw a lot of grazing, not gazing! That’s the genesis of this whole project!’
Finally, we go out with a mission statement – similar to the one we came in with:
‘We really believe museums must change. As they are now, they don’t represent who the culture is, they represent special interests, and it’s time for all of that to change’ says Frida.
Plus ça change…
‘A lot of people like to believe that art is above it all,’ says Käthe, reflecting on the myth and exaltation of ‘one great genius’ (usually white and male) who springs from nowhere, rather than telling the story of art that reflects the time it is made in. ‘All art is part of its own time. We think that’s important to know about, and that’s why we’re advocates for better museum practices, casting a wider net and collecting the whole story of our culture and in general changing how things are taught and viewed’ says Käthe.
Frida again: ’Our project The Male Graze isn’t to moralise and censor, it’s merely to inform; to create a richer, deeper, broader understanding of art to culture.’
So, thirty-six years of chipping away at it all, with plenty of work done, but lots still to do. Let’s hope Guerrilla Girls continue to make trouble in the art world and beyond for many more years to come – and continue to inspire the rest of us to also use art to make change.
Dorothy Max Prior spoke to Guerrilla Girls founder-members Käthe Kollwitz and Frida Kahlo via Zoom on 15 June 2021.
For more about the Guerilla Girls past and present see https://www.guerrillagirls.com/
Guerilla Girls: The Art of Behaving Badly – ‘not a monograph, a call to arms’ – is published by Chronicle Books. Punch out gorilla/guerrilla mask included www.chroniclebooks.com
Art Night 2021 runs 18 June to 18 July, across the UK and online. Artists include: Guerrilla Girls, Alberta Whittle, Isabel Lewis, Oona Doherty, Adham Faramawy and Mark Leckey. The festival is curated by Art Night’s artistic director Helen Nisbet and this year’s edition is titled Nothing Compares 2U. The programme takes inspiration from defiance in small acts and moments of self-determination, both personal and collective. All details and locations listed on https://artnight.london
The Male Graze is Guerilla Girls’ largest UK public project to-date, exploring bad male behaviour through the lens of art history. Eleven large billboards will be on display from 18 June to 18 July in partnership with Art Night, and the interactive website can be found at themalegraze.com
Full list of The Male Graze billboard locations:
345 Old Street, London, EC1V 9LT
London Bridge/Borough High Street, London, SE1 9OG
The Anchor Inn, Rea Street, Birmingham, B5 6ET
2 Forfar Road, Dundee, DD4 7AR
Cardiff, Motorpoint Arena A, Bute Terrace, Cardiff, CF10 2FE
231 Gallowgate, Barrowlands, Glasgow, G4 OTP
1 Warehouse, New Orchard Street, Swansea, SA1 6YL
A209, Lewes (opposite Elephant and Castle pub, adjacent to New Road)
1364 Neath Road, Swansea, SA1 2HL (14 June – 27 June)
57 Neath Road C/O Lyndu Street, Morriston, SA6 7BH (28 June – 11 July)
Compton Verney, Warwick, CV35 9HJ
Headingley Lane, Headingley, Leeds LS6 2AS
Eastbourne Redoubt, Royal Parade, Eastbourne BN22 7AQ