PLATTSBURGH – The Guerrilla Girls take no hostages. Then. Now.
The feminist masked avengers, who assume pseudonyms of deceased women artists, expose bias and corruption at every chance in art, film, pop culture and politics.
After nearly four decades of their intersectional take down of the patriarchy, the Guerrilla Girls bound their “wild career of provocative street campaigns, books, performances, large-scale exhibitions at museums and more” in “Guerrilla Girls: The Art of Behaving Badly” published by Chronicle Books in October 2020.
The vibrant book is a visual woke-before-woke data-driven shaming stocked with creative complaints against the status quo in the context of gritty-greedy 1980s New York City and beyond.
“We did this book because it was time to look back at everything we’ve done in the light of everything that is going on now – all the pressures for social change, Black Lives Matter, all the pressures against museums to reconsider the ethics of museum culture in the United States,” Frida Kahlo said.
“It was just time to do it.”
The 192-page volume is a time capsule, a primer and relevant guidepost for activists today.
“The book is wonderful,” Kahlo said.
“It’s the a summation of all the work that we’ve done. We made it a picture book so the work would be a star. It would be about the work itself and not about people in the art world talking about the book or the importance of what we’ve done. We wanted the work to stand for itself.”
For her personally, it was a lookback at her work over the last 30-35 years.
“And realizing that we were dealing with intersectional feminism in 1986,” she said.
“We were dealing with anti-racism. We were dealing with anti-sexism before they became really current vocabulary.
“We sort of proceeded to a critique of museum culture and how museum culture integrates institutional bias in the structure of the museums and also in the structure of the art market.”
Today, the art market is the realm of billionaires who secure coveted works from their cellphones.
In 2017, “Untitled” by Jean-Michel Basquiat sold for $110.5 million in 2017, according to wealthygorrilla.com
“Salvator Mundi” by Leonardo da Vinci sold for $450.3 million and was purchased by the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman on behalf of Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism.
“That takes it all down to what are their values and what are our values as a culture?” Kahlo said.
“So the idea is if we live in the richest country of the world that has to depend on the philanthropy of the super rich to fund our cultural institutions, we should at least choose billionaires who make the world a better place rather than a worse place.”
At the highest level, art has become an instrument of capitalist investment.
“There are a small number of people making the choice about what becomes art history rather than art historians stepping aside and looking at the culture in a broader sense and saying this is what is significant,” she said.
“The most expensive art may not really be what is significant.”
Donned in gorilla masks, mini-skirts, fishnet stockings, boots while slinging buckets of glue, the Guerrilla Girls were about blasting stereotypes apart.
“We called ourselves girls,” Kahlo said.
“We offended feminists. We had transgender members before there was even the word transgender. Then, it was funny about throwing the stereotype of the gorilla mask in everybody’s face and saying gorilla are wonderful animals. Why would anyone think a gorilla was a symbol of a lowly creature? They have an intelligence that we don’t even understand.”
As time passed, the Guerrilla Girls messaging evolved.
They identified as a “Women Artist Terrorist Organization” once.
Minority is replaced by BIPOC.
“Keep in mind that in 1985, we wanted attention,” she said.
“Activism evolves. Language evolves. Looking at those early things, you have to look at them in the context of where they were made and the times they were made. We were learning and we continue to learn and we continue to evolve our language and our description.”
Guerrilla Girls were a collective of pissed-off women.
“We called a meeting of people we thought were interested,” Kahlo said.
“Myself and Käthe Kollwitz, as explained in the book, we went to this protest at the Museum of Modern Art that was sort of traditional with placards, chants and a picket line. We realized that no one going into the museum cared what we were complaining about. So, we decided there had to be new way to do it.”
The Guerrilla Girls started on their street campaign of raw, unforgettable messaging.
“To make people think about these issues,” Kahlo said.
“Pointing to something and saying it was bad wasn’t enough. You had to invite them in. You had to catch their attention and then give them some new information.”
“Do women have to get naked to get into the Met. Museum” is an iconic GG banner.
“It’s like what?” she said.
“Do women have to take off their clothes to get into the museum? No, it meant there were more naked women in the artworks than were women artists.”
The rotating configuration of artist activists hung around their posters to listen to what viewers said, which triggered ideas for the next poster and the next and the next.
“It was inventing a new way of working as artists activists,” Kahlo said.
“We flew by the seat of our pantyhose. We were true guerrillas. We didn’t have any rules. We didn’t have a plan. We were inventing it week by week.
“And, we really didn’t even think it would stick. We were kind of surprised. We were acting out of outrage and anger. We were kind of surprised that anyone paid us any attention. We started to listen to the attention, and we learned a whole lot.”
The early posters were funny, naive and direct.
“We started to realize exclusion was a whole lot more than not having women in shows,” Kahlo said.
“We kind of claimed the streets. It was free.”
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