They are bold. They are unconventional. They are feminists. And they are dressed as gorillas.
In an international art scene where male artists have received more recognition and praise than women, a collective of anonymous, feminist art activists called the Guerilla Girls emerged.
The end goal of the Guerilla Girls is to abolish the sexism and racism that art institutions—and the history of art itself—were founded on. They aim to expose the long-standing lack of inclusion and representation of women artists and their art within these institutions. Their approach is simple: launch bold, daring, and unconventional campaigns and advertisements to get the message across without sugarcoating it.
The Guerilla Girls were formed in 1985 by a group of women in New York City. Two events in the art world inspired their union: the 1971 essay by feminist art critic Linda Nochlin titled “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” and a 1984 exhibition of 169 contemporary artists at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET), where only 13 of the exhibited artists were women.
When the yet-to-be-established collective discovered the representational imbalance, they protested outside of the museum but little attention was afforded to the cause. No one seemed to care. They realized they needed to change their approach to engage the public rather than disturb it, thus forming the Guerilla Girls.
Guerilla is a Spanish term that refers to a group of radical, unconventional fighters, and its adoption was appropriate to the collective’s cause. The gorilla suits were employed because they mimicked the name of the Guerilla Girls and maintained member anonymity. They took on pseudonyms after famous female artists like Frida Kahlo and Käthe Kollwitz to protect their own identities.
Since the traditional protests did not arouse much public attention, the Guerilla Girls decided to use headlines and visuals that were risqué and engaging. Their advertisements and posters were designed with bold, often colorful, letters and imagery that were accompanied by humour and witty statements or thought-provoking questions.
They launched their first poster in 1989, bearing the gutsy headline “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” after they observed that only five per cent of artists represented in the MET’s Modern Art sections were women while 85 per cent of the museum’s nudes were female.
To collect the statistics, the group surveyed the museum by counting the nude bodies compared to the amount of art produced by female artists, and the results were incredibly disproportionate. The count was repeated in 2005, and the results had hardly changed. This observation engendered the need to further expose the gender biases that were (and continue to be) inherent to the MET and alike institutions.
It is not that women do not produce art or good art; it is that women were never given a proper opportunity to produce and showcase their art. From the words of Nochlin, “The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, but in our institutions and education.”
Throughout art history, women were barred from attending art schools and creating art, let alone exhibit their work. The Guerilla Girls acknowledge that years of reparation are needed to equalize the representational field, and so they strive to bring the disparities women artists face to light.
The collective was criticized for appealing to predominantly “white feminism” and they responded by extending their activism to expose institutional racial disparities and the intersecting biases of race and gender. While female artists in general are underrepresented, Black female artists bear the brunt of underrepresentation. In 1986, the Guerilla Girls launched a poster that read: “Only 4 Commercial Galleries in N.Y. Show Black Women.* Only 1 Shows More than One.**”
Today, the Guerilla Girls continue their advocacy with bold campaigns and by hosting lectures to inspire new members to carry on their activist legacy. Their work now extends beyond the art world and targets industries like Hollywood as well. There is still much work to be done as artist Cindy Sherman comments, there is still a “long ways to go.”
Staff Writer (Volume 48) — Serena is a third year Art History and Professional Writing and Communications student at UTM. As a creative, she's always been fond of viewing and creating art, and writing poetry. If she isn't typing away at her desk, you can find her at an art gallery or museum, crushing an exercise, dancing to her heart's content, or cheffing-it-up in the kitchen.