In the Spring of 1985, a group of New York-based female artists banded together to protest the rampant discrimination in a male curated, male-centric MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) show (the exhibit claimed to be a survey of the modern era’s most significant painters and sculptors, however out of 165 artists shown only 13 were women). Together they became Guerrilla Girls — masked crusaders for gender and racial equality in the art world. Frida Kahlo, one of the founding members whose pseudonym comes from the famous Mexican painter, came to campus on Nov. 7 to deliver the Samek Art Museum’s Distinguished Art Lecture, as well as introduce the Samek’s latest exhibition, “Guerrilla Girls: Art of Behaving Badly.”
Launched in 2015, the Distinguished Art Lecture brings accomplished art writers, educators, curators and artists to share the contributions to the discourse of art and inspire students to engage with art. The Guerrilla Girls were invited to speak on the evolution of the posters, billboards and actions. “The Samek team has been trying to arrange their visit since I started working there three years ago as a freshman, so to see it all come together as a senior was really special,” said Maddie Seibert ’20, student coordinator at Samek.
After a brief introduction by the director of the Samek Art Museum Richard Rinehart and a video outlining the many accomplishments of the group, Kahlo entered from the back donning her signature gorilla mask and handing out bananas. “Demagogues and dictators are on the rise. Lies and corruption grow worse every day. Is anyone as nervous as I am that the president has the nuclear codes?” Kahlo said. She called on the audience to release some of the anxiety with one resounding, unified scream.
Kahlo explained that the Guerrilla Girls are “the conscience of the art world.” They wear gorilla masks in public and use facts, humor, and outrage to expose gender and ethnic bias, as well as corruption in art and pop culture. As Kahlo says, they “seek to prove that the art world is not always a meritocracy.”
Kahlo recounted how the group’s bold protests have turned them into art world legends: They have plastered city walls with posters exposing the gender wage gap; they have made stickers a calling card of equality; and have written alternative textbooks that expose the statistically lopsided facts absent in most art history texts. Despite the outlandish nature of many of the Guerrilla Girls’ protests, they are all rooted in statistics. For example, the group’s signature “weenie count” tallied art’s male-to-female subject ratios at popular art institutions, ultimately revealing that 85 percent of the nude artwork in the Metropolitan Museum of Art was of females. From this data, the group designed a poster that sarcastically reads “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?”
More than thirty years and a new generation of museum curators later, the Guerrilla Girls are finally enjoying popularity. In 2005, the Guerrilla Girls exhibited their first major show (and the first show at Venice Biennale to be overseen by women in 110 years), entitled “Welcome to the Feminist Biennale,” which evaluated 101 years of Biennale history in terms of diversity. From there, the Guerrilla Girls have been invited to produce special projects at international institutions, sometimes at the very same institutions that they criticize.
“We’ve been busier than ever but sent with a problem: what do you do when the system your attacking now embraces you? What’s an activist to do? We agonize over it,” Kahlo said. Invitations like these are carefully evaluated on whether there is potential to disseminate their message to a more mainstream audience; besides it is a “thrill to criticize art on its own walls,” Kahlo said.
The event corresponded with the University’s Strategic Plan that calls for building and sustaining a diverse and inclusive environment. In order to ensure that students graduate with knowledge, skill and habits of being socially aware citizens, Rinehart argues that the University must “challenge students and provide further opportunities for discussion about social issues of importance on campus and in the world.”
Seibert agreed that these social issues must be brought to the forefront of the conversation as “a lot of their satirical pieces have become realities over the past three years. That being said, I think now more than ever there is an urgent need for protest and radical female discourse.”
It can be argued that the Guerrilla Girls are well on the path to fulfilling their cultural purpose of building a more socially-aware society. Colleen Hull ’22 was inspired by the talk, agreeing that she “left feeling empowered to instill change.”