If you see people in gorilla masks popping up around town, don’t be alarmed; you've probably spotted the artists and activists known as the Guerrilla Girls. Founded in 1985, the grassroots group has created over the years a cornucopia of posters, books, videos, and billboards that raise awareness about race and gender inequalities in the art world.
As part of the Guerrilla Girls’ 2016 Twin Cities Takeover, members will be creating public art, hosting events, and exhibiting three decades of work in collaboration with multiple organizations in Minnesota starting this week through March 5.
“Käthe Kollwitz” (a pseudonym, as the Guerrilla Girls also disguise their identities employing names of late artists) answered our pressing questions about the mysterious and radical change agents.
City Pages: Remaining anonymous and wearing masks seem contrary to making women more visible in the art world. What was behind those decisions? Have you ever had second thoughts about it? Don’t you want to be recognized for your work?
Käthe Kollwitz: First of all, the Guerrilla Girls are an anonymous group, but many of our members are also activists in their non-guerrilla lives under their real names. So it’s not that we’re afraid to show our faces. We decided to be anonymous because we started out in the snarky New York art world, and we didn’t want anyone to discount our message because they hated our individual art.
But we also understood very quickly that our anonymity was one of the secrets of our success. It keeps the focus on the issues, and the mystery of who we might be attracts attention. Do we have second thoughts about the mask? Sure. It’s hot inside these masks!
CP: So, what was the initial motivation to start the Guerrilla Girls 30 years ago?
KK: We decided it was time to quit our day jobs as brain surgeons and do some good in the world. No, wait! We were artists who saw that almost all the opportunities in the art world went to white men, and we knew no one was going to change their discriminating ways without some serious pressure.
So we came up with a new idea about how to do political art: twisting an issue around and presenting it in a way that hasn’t been seen before; using facts and humor in a surprising, transgressive manner to prove our case. We started putting up posters around New York, and all hell broke loose.
People began talking about the issues. We shamed museums and galleries into doing better. We’ve now done over a 100 posters, stickers, billboards, actions, books — about art, film, pop culture, human rights of all kinds, politics, and feminism. CP: How many Guerrilla Girls are there?
KK: We have had over 55 members, some for weeks, some for decades. But we’ve always been small at any one time. You can’t do the kind of work we do in a big group. Two of the founders are still active, along with newer members. We have always been diverse in background and age, and have had cis, transgender, and queer members.
CP: What have been some of the highlights for the Guerrilla Girls since the inception of the group?
KK: One of our goals is to do something unforgettable. Our poster Do Women Have to be Naked to Get Into the Met Museum?, which is featured in our exhibition at the Walker, is a great example of that. After seeing our Naked poster, you can never go to a museum without thinking about how few women artists are on exhibit.
Another highlight is the response our work gets around the world. [We receive] thousands of letters a year, from people aged 8 to 80, telling us that our work has inspired them to become activists, too.
CP: What changes, positive or negative, have you seen in the art world, either directly as a result of your work or simply as society evolves?
KK: The world of artists is great, but the art world sucks. It is very difficult to make it in any creative field, no matter who you are. That said, it is much harder for females, artists of color, and LGBTQ people. One example: Most art schools and university art departments have at least 60 percent female students, but most contemporary art museums have less than 20 percent female artists in their collections. Stats for other marginalized groups are even worse.
Then there is the art world and the art market, which are full of poseurs, snobs, insider traders, and crooks. The art market is the playground of the one percent. And it’s pretty much unregulated. In fact, it has been described as the fourth-largest black market in the world after drugs, guns, and diamonds.
Art today is about money. But why should we let the super rich tell us what art should be in museums?
CP: How will you know when the group has reached its goals?
KK: Our one and only goal is to do in-your-face projects that have the power to change people’s minds. When the art world looks like the rest of the world and when art history includes all the voices of our culture, we might consider slowing down a bit. But then there are the many other issues we have taken on and care about deeply: discrimination in the film industry and the media, negative female stereotyping, transphobia, police violence, political corruption, and income inequality. We can’t put away those masks anytime soon.
CP: How can people get involved in the Guerrilla Girls movement?
KK: Put up our posters and stickers for sure, but even better? Do your own. And speak up for feminism. We think everyone should use that "F" word: feminism. It’s crazy that so many people who believe in the tenets of feminism — human rights (including education for everyone worldwide), reproductive rights, freedom from sexual abuse and exploitation, and more representation in government — still stop short of calling themselves feminists.
Civil rights, women's rights, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer rights are the great human rights movements of our time. Feminism doesn’t get the respect it deserves, but it’s changed the world, revolutionized human thought, and given many individuals lives their great grandparents could never have imagined. Even the most repressive nations in the worlds have feminists, bravely speaking up or quietly working for oppressed people everywhere.
IF YOU GO:
Guerrilla Girls Twin Cities Takeover
January 21 through March 5 (exhibition dates vary)
Events take place over multiple locations throughout the Twin Cities
Visit www.ggtakeover.com for a full list of events and exhibitions.