Still sadly relevant
The Guerrilla Girls have exposed the art world’s inequities since the ‘80s
More than 30 years after its inception, Guerrilla Girls shouldn’t still be socially relevant. The art collective, founded in 1985, should be little more than a museum relic, an interesting snapshot of past feminist endeavors and bygone fights against sexism in the art world.
Unfortunately, though, the group’s mission and work remains as culturally germane as ever, says Neysa Page-Lieberman, the director of the Department of Exhibitions and Performance Spaces at Columbia College Chicago and the curator for the traveling exhibit Not Ready to Make Nice: Guerrilla Girls in the Art World and Beyond. The exhibit, which opens September 7 at Verge Center for the Arts, represents a significant overview of the Guerrilla Girls’ work throughout its 32-year history.
“Their message is as powerful now as was in the ’80s, only now more people are woke to it,” Page-Lieberman says. Initial reaction to the group wasn’t wholly positive, she adds.
“They were treated like criminals. They got death threats.”
Certainly, the radical feminist art collective made a strong first impression. The group launched in New York City in 1985 in response to An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture, a Museum of Modern Art exhibit of 165 artists that included only 13 women and few people of color (none of whom were, incidentally, also women). Angered by what they saw as a blatant gender disparity, seven artists banded together to protest outside the museum. The demonstration had no effect on the exhibit—but something bigger was born. With a play on its name, the collective’s members started wearing gorilla masks whenever in public; they also took on the names of famous female artists such as Frida Kahlo and Käthe Kollwitz—all in an effort to remain anonymous and keep the conversation focused on issues. They also made flyers and posters of “report cards” on the state of the art at major museums and galleries.
That was just the beginning. In the years since, Guerrilla Girls have produced myriad photos and billboards. They’ve published books, curated projects and toured. They’ve also been shown in the Library of Congress, the Getty and, yes, even the Museum of Modern Art. A 1992 documentary, Guerrillas in our Midst, chronicled their exploits.
All this, and yet many believe the Guerrilla Girls haven’t quite received their artistic due.
“I had been following the Girls since I was a kid and realized a lot of people thought they were no longer around,” says Page-Lieberman. “I wanted to say, ’They’re still here—they’ve been game since the get-go.’”
Page-Lieberman contacted the collective about curating a career exhibit. Initially, she says, the Guerrilla Girls “weren’t crazy” about the idea of including early work but rather wanted to focus on recent endeavors.
The curator managed to convince them to include the older work, too. It was important, she told them, to introduce their mission to a new generation of artists, radicals and feminists.
“[Their early work] had been shown primarily at academic institutions and now there were 17- and 18-year-olds who weren’t even born when they started,” Page-Lieberman says.“I told them, ’I want them to see where you came from.’”
The exhibit, which debuted in Chicago in 2012, spans the collective’s breadth of work and includes behind-the-scene photos and documentary material. Each regional showing usually includes lectures. Locally, a yet-to-be-named Guerrilla Girl will appear at Sacramento State on October 5 for an hourlong discussion.
The scope of the work will give people a chance to see how the group’s methods have morphed over the decades, Page-Lieberman says.
“They’ve always been on the cutting edge of technology; in the ’80s they were cutting and pasting and taking things to Xerox,” she says. “Now their style has changed dramatically as different technology has become available.”
One cornerstone of the exhibit remains defiantly old school, though: a massive interactive-wall installation invites viewers to use sticky notes to finish the sentence “I’m not a feminist, but if I was, this is what I’d complain about…”
The result, Page-Lieberman says, turns into a real-time conversation on, among other topics, art and gender.
“It’s very exciting and engaging,” she says.
As conversation-starters, the Guerrilla Girls have faced their own criticisms over the years, internally and from the public, including complaints that the group isn’t diverse enough—either in its makeup or in the works it champions. There has even been internal strife, including a lawsuit following the defection of members who formed a separate group, Guerrilla Girls Broadband.
Page-Lieberman acknowledges their issues and criticisms.
“The motivation has always been to give voice to marginalized voices and expose the rampant sexism and racism and other forms of prejudice in artwork,” she says. “But [the group] is in no shape or form immune to the prejudices in society.”
Founding Guerrilla Girl member “Frida Kahlo” initially responded to an emailed request for comment but as the deadline loomed, went radio silent and disappeared back underground, as radical, anonymous artists are wont to do.
Page-Lieberman says critical points about the Guerrilla Girls are rooted in validity, but, she adds, the group consistently pushes itself to evolve and improve.
“They’ve been around for more than 30 years and there have been fractures,” she says. “They’ve been talking about race from the very beginning and now that transgender issues have come to the forefront, that’s been a part of their dialogue and message as well,” she says. “I have no idea about racial makeup or any other makeup—but I do know what their work says.”
For Liv Moe, that work ensures that the collective remains a vital part of the art world, globally and at home.
“To say there’s still a major need for Guerrilla Girls is an understatement,” the Verge director says. “There’s still a real need to talk about inequity in the arts, and all these years later the Guerrilla Girls are doing the work, and yet you’re still seeing museums that [have] majority white-men art, displayed and purchased.”
She points to Sacramento’s art scene as a prime illustration.
“All of the most-applauded artists that come out of this region are men—we’re starting to see that turn a little bit with some women getting more attention, like [sculptor and painter] Gale Hart. But look how long she’s paid her dues to us now to be finally turning this corner where she gets recognition.”
Now, Moe says, it’s vital to bring exhibits such as Not Ready to Make Nice to local art enthusiasts.
“I’m excited to have something of this magnitude come to Sacramento,” she says. “Having this conversation regionally is important.”