The feminist art collective known as the Guerrilla Girls recently celebrated its 30 year anniversary along with additional accolades in the art world. In the past year, the Whitney Museum and the Walker Art Center both purchased the collective’s full portfolio of 88 works ranging from 1985 to 2012.
In 1985, a group of anonymous women came together to protest MoMA’s exhibition “An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture.” They were appalled and then motivated by the show’s staggering lack of diversity. As Kim Kanatani and Vas Prabhu sum it up, the exhibit was “comprised of approximately 169 artists, thirteen of whom were women and none of whom were artists of color.”
In response to these numbers, the feminist art collective was born. Women from the art world came together, shrouded in secrecy behind their famed gorilla masks, and began to force the art world and museums to take note.
Kanatani and Prabhu explain, “They wear gorilla masks to make a metaphorical connection. The masks are also worn in public to protect their identities, so that the debate remains focused on issues rather than the personalities or appearances of individual members.”
The Guerrilla Girls began using public billboards as their medium with minimalist advertising-inspired font and graphics as their mode. And their message? The very numbers that first appalled them at the museum became their weapon and message of choice.
They began taking trips to museums and galleries, tallying the number of female artists and artists of color showing in these spaces. Then they went to the streets and posted their art in public spaces, often near the entries to the very institutions they critique. In their 1985 “How Many Women Had One-Person Exhibitions in NYC Museums Last Year?,” they beg the viewer to view their tally and gape at the answer. The answer to their question was that between the top four NY museums (The Guggenheim, Metropolitan, MoMA, and the Whitney), there had been one female solo show .
In a 2007 piece published in Off Our Backs, the Guerrilla Girls featured one of their text-heavy, message-packed pieces. In true Guerrilla Girl fashion, they introduce themselves first,
We’re a bunch of anonymous females who take the names of dead women artists as pseudonyms and appear in public wearing gorilla masks…Dubbing ourselves the conscience of culture, we declare ourselves the female counterparts to the mostly male tradition of anonymous do-gooders…
Over the years, their work has been shown internationally as they continue to attend, count, share, and shame curators, museum directors, gallery owners, and fellow artists alike. They draw public attention to both the producers and the viewers of these shows, heightening awareness and the public’s demand to do better.
Recently, the Guerrilla Girls revisited their now-iconic posters to update them for an “anniversary recount.” Between the same four museums, there were only five female solo shows last year. The numbers three decades later demonstrate the long road ahead for the art world.
In 1996, Kanatani and Prabhu argued that The Guerrilla Girls “continue to successfully maintain pressure on art institutions and professionals to be mindful of issues of sexism and racism.” Their recent recount emphasizes that point four-fold: it affirms the group’s continued importance, it confirms the art world’s growing need for increased racial and gender diversity, it demands heightened awareness on the part of viewers, and in turn, it increases the public demand for more.