Longtime New York art avengers ready to blow some ceilings in Albuquerque
In the 23 years since the Guerilla Girls started a feminist revolution on the streets of Manhattan, members worked their way into the belly of the exclusive art beast. At its conception, the group hung posters near museums to point furry, long-nailed fingers at sexism in the city's art houses. "Now we're in this position where sometimes the very institutions that we've criticized invite us to come show and to criticize them," says a Guerrilla founder, who goes by the code name Frida Kahlo.
All of the Girls maintain anonymity while appearing on panels and at universities, lectures and workshops under hairy gorilla masks. "It's our effectiveness," Kahlo explains. "As long as we're anonymous, we could be anyone."
They have two secrets: their identity and their numbers. Kahlo refuses to reveal how many have joined the Guerrilla's ranks. "Your fantasies are probably more interesting than our reality."
Because they hide behind what Kahlo calls their "mask-ulinity," they've never been able to register as a nonprofit. They've always put their address on their posters, and from the beginning, passersby sent unsolicited money through the mail. The Girls have become part of collegiate consciousness with the publication of their textbook The Guerrilla Girls' Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art. "When you dig deep enough, you find there were a lot of women artists who found lots of ways to get around all the rules that were set up to keep them out of the art world," Kahlo says. Being invited into museums offers a peculiar thrill—and an ideological conundrum. "We argue all the time about whether we're being co-opted by the system." Still, she says, it's a lot of fun to criticize a museum from inside it.
Female artists are more often included in exhibits since the masked avengers embarked on their mission all those years ago. But the scene has also changed, warns Kahlo. The art market has become a force behind what items are purchased and preserved as part of our cultural history: "We're finding that though women show more now than they did back in the 1980s, their work is not being collected or shown at institutions and museums the way it should be. There's a big glass ceiling just beyond the emerging level."
Everyone wants to display works by women, Kahlo adds, but female artists don't have the economic power of male artists. Museums are more likely to give retrospectives to white male artists than women or artists of color, according to Kahlo. "We have found that there are funny little pockets of progressive politics, and the farther you get away from New York, actually the better it gets for women and artists of color."
By looking at the stereotype of an artist—usually "that sort of Jackson Pollock guy who womanizes and drinks a bottle of bourbon and pisses in the fireplace"—these culture warriors branched out beyond the art world. "If a woman behaved that way, she wouldn't be made into a hero. People would think she was absolutely insane." They published Bitches, Bimbos and Ballbreakers: The Guerrilla Girls' Illustrated Guide to Female Stereotypes. The Girls get letters all the time from women in other fields—meteorologists, veterinarians—telling them that what they're complaining about in the art world is true all over.
Which is not to say that every ugly cultural truth these gorilla-headed women drag into the light are agreed upon within the group. There's plenty of debate from within, Kahlo says. And how do they resolve it? "We scream and shout and stamp our feet and go shopping," she pauses. "No, well, we agreed to disagree about things. We don't have a kind of orthodox view about things. I think if there's enough interest in the group to do something about an issue, it gets done—even if not all of the people in the group want to work on it."
The Girls are known for their humor tactics, showing that it's only a myth that feminists take themselves too seriously. The divorcing of feminism and comedy is yet another stereotype "that antifeminists have given feminists to, in a way, make them seem prissy," Kahlo says. " Humor is a great way to make people change their minds. If you can make someone laugh about a difficult situation—something they may not agree with—you have a little hook into their brain."
When their job is done, the Guerrillas might remove their masks—though Kahlo's quick to add that there aren't any signs of that happening in the near future. What is their job? "Oh, we're just professional complainers in the art world," she breezes.
The Guerrilla Girls will put on a two-woman show at the KiMo Theatre (423 Central NW) on Friday, Nov. 21, at 7:30 p.m. Kahlo and another Guerrilla who helped found the group will be performing skits, showing a DVD and taking questions.
"You're getting the A team, if I may say so," Kahlo says. "In particular, we'll be looking for some men who might want to help us. If they're out there, they should come to our presentation. We'll give one of them a job."
Afterward, there will be a reception at 516 ARTS (516 Central SW). Tickets are $10 and available at Ticketmaster outlets, the KiMo Box Office and 516 ARTS.
The Girls are also offering a workshop on Saturday, Nov. 22, from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the UNM Arts Lab (131 Pine NE). The workshop costs $25 to attend, and preregistration is required. Call 516 ARTS at 242-1445 or e-mail email@example.com.
In conjunction with the Guerrilla Girls' visit, 516 ARTS is hosting an exhibition called "Speak Out: Art, Design & Politics," showcasing artists from across the world who create socially charged messages. The show will be up through Saturday, Dec. 20. Go to 516arts.org for more.