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Guerrilla Girls Biography

Gorilla masks, bold letters, pink and yellow, and statistics all arranged into text-based posters, billboards, and other public appearances are the markers of artworks by the Guerrilla Girls, an organisation of female activist-artists who combine facts and humour to battle gender and ethnic inequalities and corruption in the arts community and the world at large.

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The Guerrilla Girls had its beginnings in 1984, when The Museum of Modern Art in New York opened the exhibition An International Survey of Painting and Sculpture, in which out of the total 169 participating artists only 13 were female. During the night, a group of women in gorilla masks mounted posters that criticised the underrepresentation of women in the art world throughout the streets of SoHo. One of their early posters was titled What Do These Artists Have in Common? and listed well-known male artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Tony Cragg, and Anselm Kiefer, with the tagline 'They allow their work to be shown in galleries that show no more than 10% women artists or none at all'. This strategy of incorporating statistics and provocative language into posters would come to define the Guerrilla Girls' works in the coming decades.

As a rule, the members of the group are anonymous and wear gorilla masks in public to hide their identities. They also use pseudonyms that often refer to famous women from the past, usually artists, such as Hilma af Klint, Gertrude Stein, Frida Kahlo, and Gerda Taro. These practices rose out of a desire to show that the issues transcended their individual identities, but also reflected the reality that their criticism of the art world might harm their careers. In Guerrilla Girls' Identities Exposed! (1990), nearly 500 names of women in the arts industry were listed, including artist Nancy Spero and critic Lucy R Lippard. The women on the list may or may not have been actual members of the group; rather, the list served to highlight the large number of female practitioners in the art world who were directly affected by the Guerrilla Girls' cause and perhaps stood in solidarity with the group's work.

The Guerrilla Girls' early artworks continued to concentrate on addressing sexism and racial discrimination in art galleries and institutions in New York City. During the 1987 Whitney Biennial, the group organised the exhibition Guerrilla Girls Review the Whitney, in which they exposed the statistics that proved the museum's favouring of white men over women and artists of colour. The Guerrilla Girls' most iconic poster, Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? appeared on the buses of New York City in 1989. In it, the reclining nude woman from French artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres' La Grande Odalisque (1814) is wearing a gorilla mask over her head; next to her is the text, 'Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art Sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.' Bus Companies Are More Enlightened Than NYC Art Galleries (1989), another poster, shows the percentages of women working jobs such as bus driver (49.2%) and welder (4.8%) in the city, alongside the percentage of female artists represented by 33 of the city's prominent galleries (16%).

Over time, the art world began to respond to the Guerrilla Girls' criticism, but the group soon discovered that the situation had turned into tokenism—institutions would show a select number of female practitioners and artists of colour and claim to have resolved their issues of sexism or racial discrimination. Many of the Guerrilla Girls' posters of the 1990s attempted to expose tokenism as another form of discrimination. One poster, Guerrilla Girls' Pop Quiz (1990), for example, asks 'If February is Black History Month and March is Women's History Month, what happens the rest of the year?' (the answer, 'Discrimination', is written upside-down below the question), while others such as Top Ten Signs You're an Art World Token (1995) include phrases like 'Whenever you open your mouth, it's assumed that you speak for "your people", not just yourself.'

Later, the Guerrilla Girls evolved their practice to consider the inequalities in society at large. A series of works from the early 2000s were directed at the pervasive sexism and objectification of women in Hollywood. This series includes mock movie poster The Birth of Feminism (2001) and The Anatomically Correct Oscar (2002), a billboard with the tagline 'He's white & male, just like the guys who win!'. In 2012, in response to Minnesota's then-proposed amendment to ban same-sex marriage, the Guerrilla Girls mounted the Even Michele Bachmann Believes 'We All Have The Same Civil Rights' Billboard in downtown Minneapolis, using the state's conservative Republican congresswoman's own words.

The group has not been without controversy. Critics have pointed out the issue of diversity in their own demographic, with a number of known founding members being white. In an interview with Judith Olch Richards for the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution in 2008, Guerrilla Girls Alma Thomas and Jane Bowles also spoke of experiencing a sense of hierarchy in group meetings and underrepresentation of members of colour. In the late 1990s, friction caused some members to split and form independent entities respectively focused on the internet (Guerrilla Girls BroadBand) and theatre (Guerrilla Girls On Tour!). This led to a federal lawsuit in 2002, when two of the founding members—Frida Kahlo and Käthe Kollwitz—sued other organisations for copyright and trademark infringement as well as unjust enrichment. Guerrilla Girls, Inc. continues the initial focus on art through posters, exhibitions, workshops, and lecture series. The Guerrilla Girls have also published the books Confessions of the Guerrilla Girls (1995); The Guerrilla Girls' Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art (1998); Bitches, Bimbos and Ballbreakers: The Guerrilla Girls' Illustrated Guide to Female Stereotypes (2003); The Guerrilla Girls' Art Museum Activity Book (2004); and The Hysterical Herstory of Hysteria and How It Was Cured: From Ancient Times Until Now (2016).

While many of their posters have appeared in public spaces, they have also exhibited internationally and within the walls of institutions, notably in the 51st Venice Biennale (2005); in Guerrilla Girls 1985–2015, a major retrospective of almost 200 works at Matadero Madrid (2015); and in Not Ready to Make Nice, a travelling exhibition that has visited various regions of the United States since 2012. In 2019, the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki organised a survey exhibition of the Guerrilla Girls' posters produced between 1984 and 2016, titled Guerrilla Girls: Reinventing the 'F' Word—Feminism!

Sherry Paik | Ocula | 2019

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