The Guerrilla Girls: 30 years of punking art world sexism

Emma Brockes meets the feminist art-punk pioneers behind the iconic protest posters. The Clark Kents of the art world explain why billionaires are their new target – and why it’s so hard to find a decent monkey mask these days

It is 30 years since the Guerrilla Girls – a shifting collective of activists committed to exposing inequality in the art world – came into being, during which time a lot has changed, and a lot hasn’t. As they point out in their latest campaign, galleries that once showed only 10% women artists now show up to 20%. New York museums that, in 1985, gave no women artists a solo exhibition – including the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan and the Whitney – each gave a single woman a solo show last year.

“The Whitney museum says, ‘Isn’t it wonderful – we have 30% women in the new collection!’” says the activist known as Frida Kahlo. “And we’re saying, why is that something to be happy about – 30%? Where is the other 20?”

One thing that has categorically changed in the last three decades is that it has become harder to find good gorilla masks. We are in an art space on New York’s Lower East Side, where the three women sitting opposite me could be smiling, but who knows? Each is wearing a disguise she won’t take off for the entirety of the interview. (I brought doughnuts to the meeting, which none of the women can eat without removing their masks and revealing their identities. Such are the sacrifices they make for their art.) I don’t know their names, either. Each chose her pseudonym to celebrate a woman artist of the past – as well as Kahlo, there’s Käthe Kollwitz, named after a 19th-century German artist, and Zubeida Agha, for a modern Pakistani artist who died in 1997 – and the only way to distinguish them is by their voices and variations in the design of the masks. Kahlo’s is plastered in glittery pink lipstick and has more luxuriant hair than the other two, and behind the eyeholes of Käthe Kollwitz’s mask, I can just about make out blue-framed spectacles.

The classic Guerrilla Girls sticker
The classic Guerrilla Girls sticker. Photograph: Tate

“They wear out,” says Kahlo.

“But there’s so few choices,” says Agha.

“It used to be better,” says Kollwitz and sighs. “I guess it’s not a big Halloween thing any more.”

Kollwitz and Kahlo are both original members of the group, which has, over the years, numbered around 60 members. They were initially going to wear ski masks while pointing out something that, in 1985, no one else was making much of: the huge discrepancy in the numbers of men and women artists shown by the major museums and galleries. “I mean, we didn’t have a plan,” says Kahlo. “We were just pissed off.” The monkey masks came about after a spelling mix-up around guerrilla/gorilla, and so the avant-garde protest was born, a satirical gesture that was also a way for the women to protect themselves and their careers from reprisals. (“The art world was a small clubby place, and we thought our careers would be hurt,” says Kollwitz.)

Over time, the stickers and posters used by the Guerrilla Girls in their campaigns have themselves became desirable artifacts. Tate Modern has the group’s artwork as part of its permanent collection. They have shown their protest materials at the Venice Biennale. The most famous of the posters, from 1989, is that of a female nude overlaid with a gorilla mask and the slogan “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?”, protesting the fact that while 5% of the artists shown there were women, 85% of the nudes were.

Then/Now by the Guerrilla Girls
Then/Now, a recent work by the Guerrilla Girls. Photograph: the Guerrilla Girls

“Galleries ask to represent us,” says Agha. “But we’re not interested in being part of the market and producing a precious commodity. You can buy our posters online for $20.”

The fact that the women have become a familiar spectacle in the art world does little to undermine the absurdity of meeting them: an emperor’s clothes-type scenario in which everyone in the room contrives not to notice that three of our number are dressed as gorillas that is also, oddly, quite intimidating. Without names, faces, ages or biography, it is hard for trolls to target the Guerrilla Girls. One could email abuse to their website, but the kind of sexual threats that feminist campaigners routinely come in for on social media is somehow deflated when the addressees look like impassive gorillas.

In the runup to the group’s 30th anniversary retrospective, the Guerrilla Girls have a new target, the billionaire art collectors who drive the art market and often sit on the boards of the major museums, giving them a say in what art gets bought and shown.

“If you think about it, that’s kind of a conflict of interest,” says Kahlo.

“We accept that art is outrageously expensive, and that all these hugely wealthy people are the ones buying,” says Kollwitz. “What we don’t understand is that they are also controlling the institutions.”

A Guerrilla Girl with Whitney Museum curator David Kiehl
One of the Girls with Whitney Museum curator David Kiehl. Photograph: Mike Coppola/Getty

The aim of the new campaign, which will take the form, as usual, of stickers plastered all over posh New York neighbourhoods, is designed to highlight “overemphasis on money as the criterion for success in the art world,” says Kahlo. “Whenever you read about artists, a lot of the coverage has to do with how rich they are, how much their work sells for, which wealthy people in the world have them. No one is looking at the system and saying: is this the way culture is produced?”

The group’s fundamental mission is still to expose sexism and racism in the art world and, while the language might have changed over the years (“Become more coded,” says Kahlo), the underlying discrimination hasn’t. A gallery owner once said to Kollwitz, “women and artists of colour are just not making work that addresses the dialogue”, by which she understood them to mean, “I can’t make billions of dollars from women artists. So I’ll pick up this young white guy.”

And while museums and galleries have changed the makeup of their exhibitors slightly, “it’s a certain kind of tokenism,” says Kahlo, “where once institutions realised they had a problem with diversity, they would show one woman artist and one artist of colour, and think that was taken care of. So it was pretty interesting to convince people that was not a solution, that was just a continuation.”

A vintage poster tallying women artists in New York galleries
A vintage poster tallying women artists in New York galleries. Photograph: Ken Faught/Getty

The Guerrilla Girls’ protests were data-driven before data became a thing, and over the years they have broadened their remit to encompass inequities in Hollywood and the theatre. What they hope, ultimately, is that their work suggests an alternative to the way things are currently done. “If we are remembered in history, it’s not because art collectors have been interested in us,” says Kahlo. “It’s because artists and students have been interested in our work. I’m really proud that we’ve defined another criterion for art-world prominence. We’ve created another market paradigm.”

In the meantime, they’ve had a lot of fun. One of the side effects of their anonymity is that they can pull off the trick of being in a room when they’re not there. “I’ve been at the Whitney, for example,” says Agha, “and there’s lots of people there that I know in my non-masked persona, and I’m seeing them in my masked persona. They have no idea. It’s like having a superpower.”

What, you go for meetings at the Whitney in the mask?

“Yes. Sometimes I slip up and mention something I talked about in a previous identity. They’re like, ‘How did you know that?!’”

“It is kind of delicious,” says Kollwitz.

Where do you change?

“Bathrooms are really great places,” says Kollwitz.

“Often we come in through the front door already masked,” says Kahlo.

So, Clark Kent-style, who in the world knows your dual identities?

“Hard to tell,” says Kahlo. “Partners know. Very close friends. My dog knows.”

Oh, and Jeffrey Toobin, of the New Yorker. In 2005, he wrote a piece about a lawsuit brought by some of the Guerrilla Girls against an offshoot of the group, during the course of which he “outed” two members, using their legal names as they appeared in the documents.

“It was unconscionable that he did that,” says Kollwitz, possibly looking furious.

A recent music video-targetting campaign
A recent music video-targetting campaign Photograph: PR

“There’s a question as to whether he was correct,” says Kahlo. “He was making a lot of guesses there.” (Prior to the hearing, the women asked the judge if he would let them testify in masks. He said no.) “It was not a very heroic or courageous act on his [Toobin’s] part.”

The outing didn’t get much traction, mainly because, even though, as Kahlo puts it, they are “a thorn in the side” of the art establishment, they are also appreciated for bringing a certain anarchic joy to an otherwise stuffy and bloated environment.

“People close to us have protected our anonymity because they believe in the issues and realise that they don’t want to know who we are,” Kahlo says. “They’d like us to just keep doing what we’re doing.”


Emma Brockes

The GuardianTramp

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