Our Artists of the Week, The Guerrilla Girls Ask if It's Even Worse in Europe for Women

Artist(s) in Focus, Socially Engaged Art

July 21, 2016

This week, we’re going to take some time to talk about a group of activists who call themselves the Guerrilla Girls. The artistic collective was founded in 1985, and it continues to advocate the pro-feminist attitude which questions the role of women artists in the art world and its institutional homes. More specifically, the event that triggered the whys and wherefores of their entire feminist activity was an exhibition held the year before their official inauguration, called An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture organized by MoMA. Actually, it may have just been the final straw that pushed toward a firm decision, and that is to shift the focus from the female as an object to a female as a subject. The exhibition was seen as particularly problematic, since it supposedly aimed to showcase the important artworks that marked the era of contemporary art thus far. Out 169 artists, only 13 were female, which was unintentionally emphasized by the curator’s statement, harsh and restrictive even with no regard to the gender issue. The curator pointed out how any artist not included in the survey should reconsider his career, whereas the word ‘his’ was seen as a problem that lies hidden beneath all the glamour of the show, revealing its prejudicial nature. Shortly after the opening, the seven members of Guerrilla Girls protested in front of the museum, and even though their effort was not remarkably fruitful at first, the group continued to grow and to progress over time.  They remained anonymous nonetheless, wearing the signature gorilla masks in public, and using false pseudonyms which borrow the names of famous women artists from art history.

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Before the gorilla masks - a protest in front of MoMA, 1984

Art and Diversity - Where Are We Now?

So here we are in 2016, and Guerrilla Girls are as strong as ever, still tackling the matter of sexism in art. Although the topic continues to be enveloped by a certain amount of delicacy and obscurity, the group has seen some steps in progress of the art world which appears to be more considerate and inclusive. We have seen major art institutions organize female-only exhibitions, inspired by those organized by Lucy Lippard in the 70’s, and there seems to be a general paradigm shift which takes the transgendered, the homoerotic and that which was generally discriminated into account today. However, since these inclusions are moderately novel, we are still undecided if they truly help the effacement of discrimination, or if they do the contrary, drawing even more attention to the fact that these groups are seen as outcasts (we discussed this issue in one of our previous articles). On the other hand, the Guerrilla Girls are often criticized for reasons related to these specific groups and their treatment within the domain of the collective’s activist work. The group is often accused of a certain amount of ignorance, taking as a point of reference the fact that a lack of diversity does not only apply to the boycott of women, and that there are many other ways in which to observe this problem.

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Guerrilla Girls Poster from 1989

Guerrilla Girls Recent and Upcoming Activities in Europe

However, while the female artists may be enjoying some of the benefits of a significant progress today, the women artists from our past do not seem to have the same opportunity. It is hard to bring back the things from the past and to re-write a history that has already been cached. Do Women Need To Be Naked To Get Into the Met Museum? It was what Guerrilla Girls asked in 1989, and while the point may have been well taken by some, presenting a major input for our future, it doesn’t seem to do much good to the forgotten moments from our past. Nonetheless, this is a year in which Guerrilla Girls will have a take on 400 European galleries to reassess the art from their collections and to see whether they truly represent the history of art in all of its diversity and vividness. In order to collect the impressions and to celebrate 31 years of activism and protest art, there will be a show organized by the Whitechapel Gallery, and it will last from October 1st 2016 until March 5th 2017. The name of the show, Is It Even Worse in Europe? is a reference to a poster made previously in 1986. As a follow up, Tate Modern will host their week-long public project, from October 3rd until 9th. Some may question the fact that Guerrilla Girls are now praised by the same art world that they explicitly condemn, while others add this to a list of successful endeavors, as they managed to open the eyes of those who should be alarmed – the ones who have the power to change the course of history. As one of the Guerrilla Girls in the video below said, "if all the decisions are made by the same people, then the art will never look like the whole of our culture".

Featured images in slider: Guerrilla Girls via Guardian; Guerrilla Girls via Riot Flesh. All images used for illustrative purposes only.

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