Misogyny is enough to make you go apeshit, right?

Between 1984 and 1985, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York ran an exhibition called An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture. Its purported aim was to host the work of the most important 169 artists in the world at that time. It included just 13 women artists. That’s an abysmal 7.7% for the maths fans. As for the ‘international’ part – there wasn’t a single artist of colour in the roster. But no-one much seemed to care. Or even notice.

For many female artists, this exhibition was the straw that broke the camel’s back. An anonymous group of women came together calling themselves the Guerrilla Girls, and lashed back against the invisibility of female art. Donning ski masks and protesting outside the front of MoMA, they gained some attention. But not as much as they needed to invoke real change.

So the Guerrilla Girls took the messages of the 1970s feminist movement and translated them into two powerful, fact-based posters, and began plastering them around the city. These posters decried two sets of people – the galleries whose exhibitions had up to just 10% women artists (or none at all), and the male artists who were willing to let their work be exhibited in these galleries. They signed themselves off as “the conscience of the art world”.

We want to be subversive, to transform our audience, to confront them with some disarming statements, backed up by facts — and great visuals — and hopefully convert them.

It was the perfect medium, because these posters mimicked the art themselves; created by real artists, but informed by the lo-fi designs of the popular counterculture movement. What’s more, while a gallery could ride out or ignore protests, these posters were very much like the anonymous group members themselves: they could appear anywhere and everywhere.

Soon, the Guerrilla Girls were being approached by institutions for their input. They binned the ski masks in favour of gorilla masks – a result, they say, of a spelling error that stuck – and curated a show at the famous Palladium in New York, featuring the work of 85 women artists in a space that had previously been incredibly male-dominated. It was the last show they’d curate – while it was a success, the necessity to prioritise some women artists over others sat very uncomfortably with their drive to get higher visibility of all under-represented artists.

After this, they began spinning a storm into life, producing posters and stickers laden with facts and sardonic humour to catch the eye of the media. The humour was a key differentiating factor – it engaged people without depressing them. The gorilla masks were the perfect encapsulation of their new style: funny… but with sharp teeth. The masks also guaranteed them the anonymity they required, both to remove their personalities and looks from their arguments, and also to protect them as working artists from establishment backlash.

We could be anyone; we are everywhere.

Their efforts worked. As their campaigns grew in voice, so did their opportunity to increase their remit and output. Between 1985 and 2014 they held at least 240 exhibitions worldwide, were written about in thousands of articles and books, and they have even had their own books included in university syllabi. This explosion of output allows them to focus not only on the gender disparity in the art world, but also to decry the lamentable representation of artists of colour in white-dominated scenes, tokenistic inclusions of women and people of colour in our culture and to attack a wider number of targets.

Their battle is ongoing. In fact, the Guerrilla Girls are ever-growing, a multi-headed simian army. Their latest campaign asks Do women have to be naked to get into music videos, while 99% of the GUYS are dressed? in a callback to one of their earlier campaigns which asked Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? The subtext is clear – despite all their efforts, and while progress has been made, there’s still a long way to go, and a lot of targets still to tackle. Another campaign makes this even more explicit, reprinting the original 1985 list of galleries who had 10% or fewer women artists alongside a list of 2014 galleries who had just 20% or fewer.

References include The Guerrilla Girls website, WomHist and The Guardian. ©The Heroine Collective 2015 – Present, All Rights Reserved.
Tom Nash

Written by Tom Nash

Tom is an editorial manager in the corporate sector, an avid reader and creative writer. He is a committed pro-feminist who wants to support women in the fight for a free, equal and safe world.

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Copyright © Guerrilla Girls. All images courtesy of www.guerrillagirls.com.