The world needs more feminists masked avengers, Guerrilla Girls say

Friday, November 9, 2007

A founding member of the Guerrilla Girls, an influential art activist group, spoke Tuesday night to a packed Carmichael Auditorium. The speaker – who goes by the name Kathe Kollwitz and wears a gorilla mask when working with the group – presented a slide show of the group’s past work, and with humor and facts, outlined problems of discrimination in Hollywood, politics and the art world, from the founding of the Guerrilla Girls in 1985 to today. Tuesday’s event was sponsored by the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance.

The Guerrilla Girls, as the credo on their Web site states, are “fighting discrimination with facts, humor and fake fur.” Members of the group maintain anonymity by wearing gorilla masks and using the names of dead female artists when representing the group publicly.

When a group member misspelled “guerrilla” as “gorilla” on a poster, the group found its image. Members of the Guerrilla Girls have worn gorilla masks ever since, both to protect their careers and personal lives. The masks also serve to remove their personalities from the work of the group, so that when viewers look at them, they see an icon that stands for fighting for fairness and not a person, Kollwitz told The Herald.

“Now, anonymity is kind of a schtick,” Kollwitz said. “But in the beginning it was totally self-serving. We were afraid our work with the group would hurt our careers. Also, the anonymity kept the focus on the issues, and it made us a symbol for women. We needed a disguise, so we came up with this conflation of gorilla and guerrilla.”

The group’s earliest work targeted the art world and the sexist culture that it felt allowed male artists to dominate shows in museums and top galleries. The Guerrilla Girls were founded chiefly in reaction to an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The 1985 exhibit, “An International Survey of Painting and Sculpture,” was designed to showcase the most significant works of contemporary art in the world. Out of 169 artists, only 13 were women.

Since then, the Guerrilla Girls have branched out to new domains – they have recently focused their attention on Hollywood. Recently, the Guerrilla Girls staged a billboard campaign to protest race and sex discrimination in the film industry. The billboards combined humor and compelling visuals – a gorilla in a pink dress clutching an Academy Award – with disturbing facts. For example, one billboard, which Kollwitz showed a slide of at the event, noted that women directed a mere seven percent of the top 200 films of 2005.

As its work began targeting different creative fields, the group began investigating tokenism and multiculturalism. This year, the Washington Post gave the group a full page for a special section on feminism and art to critique the tax-payer-funded national art museums, she told The Herald. They created a mock tabloid, complete with catchy headlines and a Brangelina photo, to announce the scarcity of artists of color, as well as “thousands of women locked in basements of D.C. museums!” Soon after, the National Gallery hurriedly installed a sculpture by an artist of color, Kollwitz said.

Kollwitz attributed much of the success of the Guerrilla Girls to the group’s small size. There is no joining the Guerrilla Girls, she said. Rather, the rare new members are invited when the group size reaches a critical low point. While many men over the years have tried to get involved with their work, the Guerrilla Girls have always been exclusively female, she said at the Tuesday lecture.

That exclusivity protects the members’ identities and allows them to communicate better, she told The Herald. “You can’t write a book with 100 people,” Kollwitz said.

In the near future, the Guerrilla Girls plan to focus more of their attention on politics, especially related to the upcoming 2008 presidential election. “We want to add noise,” Kollwitz said, “not just make more noise.”

The group also plan to continue expanding their women’s issues projects globally and have been working with Amnesty International and Greenpeace, she said.

Kollwitz said she believes that people – students especially – can carry out the message of the Guerrilla Girls using their own creativity. “Even if you’re not an artist, be aware of what’s going on,” Kollwitz said. “If you go to a museum and see a pathetically low number of (art by) women and people of color, speak up. Stand up for things and try to find a creative way of doing it.”

“The world needs more masked avengers. More feminist avengers. More feminists,” she added.

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