Guerrilla Girls are feminist activists we should all look up to

‘When racism & sexism are no longer fashionable, what will your art collection be worth?’ Rivka Cocker explores the anarchic world of the Guerrilla Girls.

The Guerrilla Girls are a feminist activist group we should all look up to. They highlight discrimination in the art world by exposing sexism, racism and corruption in politics, art, film and pop culture. They hide their identity through wearing gorilla masks and describe themselves as ‘anonymous do-gooders like Robin Hood, Wonder Woman and Batman’. Each member’s identity is constructed using a pseudonym of a past famous female artist/writer.

The success of the Guerrilla Girls comes across in their ability to expose the underrepresentation of women in the art world in a straight forward yet humorous format. Their posters, some of which are currently displayed in the Media Networks exhibition at the Tate Modern, ask vital questions and reveal the shocking realities of inequality.

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In 1989 they asked: Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? The poster reveals that less than 5% of artists in the Met’s Modern Art sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female. So yes, it seems naked women are given more attention in the art establishment than women artists. Since discovering this poster a few years ago I’ve never looked at a painted female nude in a gallery in quite the same way.

Guerrilla Girls explore the art of complaining – something which they reclaimed in their recent artist residency in Switch House at Tate Modern. The group formed after they realised there were no opportunities in New York City for female artists and artists of colour to exhibit. They wanted to prove, through activism, posters and complaining, that ‘the best’ art isn’t just the stuff shown in galleries and museums. We often forget that the art we view in museums and galleries has been carefully selected by these big institutions. Only they get to decide what great art is.

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In a recent Guardian interview, Kahlo of Guerrilla Girls explains how they are “a thorn in the side” of the art establishment and bring an anarchic joy to an otherwise stuffy environment. What I enjoy about the work of the Guerrilla Girls is their straight up confrontation of the art world to the art world. It is an irony that art institutions now display these iconic posters which blatantly criticise themselves. The posters are of course educational for everyone but they do come with the deserved embarrassment of the art institutions who are not addressing diversity. It raises interesting questions about these institutions allowing themselves to be exposed but still not prioritising the need to include more diverse artists within their collections. This is the issue that really needs to be acted upon, which the work of the Guerrilla Girls highlights so well.

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Guerrilla Girls’ 1980s posters scattered across New York City weren’t intended to be displayed as art inside galleries and museums worldwide. As the art of protest has progressed, and seeing it in galleries has become fashionable, are the messages that the Guerrilla Girls portray diminished? Has protest art become art for art’s sake?

Guerrilla Girls currently have work displayed at the Tate Modern and Whitechapel Gallery in London. Both are free exhibits and whilst visiting these galleries, you could look around the rest of the collections and tally up the number of female artists or create your own gallery report card – Guerrilla Girls style.

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