Mocking art world sexual inequality, Guerilla Girls return with Moore retrospective

Since 1985, the group has directly confronted gatekeepers who manage, curate, collect, and critique art, staging public actions that are both fact-based and fun.

Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?

(© Guerrilla Girls)

The Guerrilla Girls could not have returned at a more fitting time or place. “Not Ready to Make Nice: Guerrilla Girls in the Art World and Beyond,” an exhibit chronicling three decades of promoting gender and racial equality, has arrived at Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia. The retrospective marks the Guerrilla Girls’ return to Moore, an early presenter of their work and the nation’s first and only visual arts college for women.

Anonymous messengers

Since 1985, the group has directly confronted gatekeepers who manage, curate, collect, and critique art, staging public actions that are both fact-based and fun. They air serious grievances with wit and humor, presenting evidence of bias with movie posters, demonstrations, gallery report cards, and even open letters to art collectors, written in the style of a preteen girl (picture pink stationery and curly writing punctuated with little hearts). The Girls are not shy about calling out the powerful with tactics like these: They’ve taken on major museums around the world, as well as the Oscars and international film festivals.

The collective’s signature is the gorilla mask, a visual ploy that both established their brand and protects members against backlash. The masks are always worn in public, driving attention to the message rather than the messengers. Members also use pseudonyms, adopting the names of female artists who succeeded despite bias, and sign works collectively “Guerrilla Girls.” Even insiders — interviewers, curators, and staff of hosting institutions — don’t know the artists’ true identities.

Making a mockery of inequality

The original Guerilla Girls (members change over time) came together in response to a 1984 exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, “An International Survey of Painting and Sculpture,” in which a mere 13 of 169 featured artists were women.  Rather than expressing unvarnished outrage, they chose public ridicule as their tactic.

They gathered proof of discrimination, counting works in the modern galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Discovering that only 5 percent of the pieces were executed by women, but 85 percent of the nudes depicted were female, Guerrilla Girls produced the billboard-sized “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” (1989). It became one of their best-known works.

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Like Mary Poppins’ spoonful of sugar, the approach makes a strong message palatable. As a Guerrilla Girl, “If you can make someone who disagrees with you laugh, you’re in their brain, and you can change minds.”  

The façade of the Art Institute of Chicago, adorned with the names of male artists such as Donatello, Botticelli, and Da Vinci, is reimagined in “Chicago Museums: Time for Gender Reassignment” (2012). Bewinged Guerrilla Girls hover like cherubs in midair on the huge poster, bearing a new cornice with the names Frida Kahlo, Edmonia Lewis, Artemisia Gentileschi, and Hannah Hoch. Supporting documentation, in the form of sources and references, are standard in Guerrilla Girls art, and appear here in a corner.

“A lot of what they do is about creating a presence more than a work of art,” notes Gabrielle Lavin Suzenski, director of The Galleries at Moore. Which makes exhibition difficult. “Not Ready to Make Nice” includes posters, leaflets, protest signs, pro and con public responses, and films.

Ugly facts exposed with wit — and humor

“Guerrillas in Our Midst,” a 1992 documentary by Amy Harrison, shows leading art figures unwittingly proving the depth of misogynist bias as they comment “the complainers are not talented,” and denigrate protesters’ “careerist” attitudes.

Another film, “The Guerrilla Girls: Not Ready to Make Nice” (2015), by Chris Filippone and Chris Rogy, depicts the artistry behind actions aimed at pay inequity. In one, the Guerrilla Girls projected spotlit comments onto the exterior of the Whitney Museum during an evening gala, in full view of wealthy patrons as they entered.

The Girls visited the Bronx and Chelsea in New York City in 2008 to publicize a faux protest group, Male Art Now (MAN), which condemned concessions won by female artists. Passers-by were prevailed upon to carry picket signs reading “Museums cave in to radical feminists!” and “Museums unfair to men!”  

The group also addresses racism and sexism beyond the creative arts, most recently, and probably unavoidably, in the White House. “President Trump Announces New Commemorative Months!” updates national holidays. February, previously Black History Month, is now “Ku Klux Klan Month.” April, known as Immigration Awareness Month, has become “Extreme Vetting Month,” and June, once LGBTQ Pride Month, has become “Pray the Gay Away Month.” September’s Latino Heritage celebration has evolved into “Mass Deportation Month,” and November, previously American Indian Heritage Month, is henceforth “White People’s Month.”

Much still to do

Despite the Guerrilla Girls’ three decades of documenting bias, inequality persists in the way art is presented, collected, and valued, in museum leadership and board membership, and in the way artists and their work are represented, all of which affects potential earnings.

Daily, it becomes more obvious that achieving gender and racial equality — in art or any other endeavor — is more a slow slog than a triumphant revolution. Ground has to be conquered, then reconquered. It’s not an endeavor for the faint of heart or short of attention span. Maybe this is a watershed moment, maybe not, but the Guerrilla Girls offer a model to follow: Marshal facts, use your wit, and don’t back down.

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