BY PUMA PERL | The Guerrilla Girls are not ready to make nice. In all likelihood, they never will be.
Celebrating three decades of feminist art, activism and protest, they continue to expand their vision — and they ARE a vision, continuing the tradition of masked avengers by exposing the dirty underside of cultural and artistic inequalities. They are warriors who don gorilla masks (and, occasionally, miniskirts and heels) to educate the public through a blend of outrageous humor and actions.
There has been little change in the art world since an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art first kicked off their outrage in 1984. Presented as the “most significant contemporary art in the world,” it was comprised of 169 white men and 13 white women.
Fact: In 1985, there was exactly one woman represented in single person exhibitions at four major New York City museums — the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan, the Modern and the Whitney. In 2015, there were a total of five women. In 1985, in 18 of the major art galleries, no more than 10 percent of the shows included women. Some galleries showed none at all. In 2014, that number jumped all the way to a high of 20 percent; some galleries still showed none.
I learned all of this and more through a visit to the current exhibit at Abrons Arts Center, which is part of the Henry Street Settlement. Titled “Not Ready to Make Nice: Guerrilla Girls Birthday Party, 30 Years and Still Counting,” the retrospective will continue through May17.
This is the first New York City exhibit that displays all of the posters that have been used throughout the years. It includes guided tours of the timeline, videos, and a blowout birthday celebration on May 15. Additionally, New Yorkers can expect surprise visits all over town from the Girls — who, with the help of supporters, will be slapping up stickers around East Village and Chelsea art galleries and joining with other activist groups to expose corruption in the art world.
On May 1, they participated in the May Day demonstrations that shut down the Guggenheim Museum. In collaboration with the activists who operate the Illuminator (a cargo van equipped with audio and video equipment), they have projected images bearing their message onto the Whitney and various art galleries. Guerrilla style, naturally.
One of the most interesting aspects of the guided tour, primarily conducted by Guerrilla Girls founding members Frida Kahlo and Kathe Kollwitz (with an assist from newer member Zubeida Agha), is the ways in which the targets and vision have broadened over the years. Triggered by the inequalities of the art world, they have expanded into addressing sexism, racism, oppression and corruption in film, politics, health care, education and anywhere inequities exist — which, of course, is everywhere. Part of the 2015 mission is drawing attention to the poorly paid employees of museums and the ownership of art by the richest of the rich (a current hashtag is #poorlittlebillionaires).
Studying the timeline, the visitor becomes aware of technical growth and the ways in which communication and the building of community have been impacted, especially for those increasingly few of us who remember mimeograph machines and heading out at night with a bunch of posters and a tub of glue, throwing them up on any available surface. Today, supporters are encouraged to post photos on Instagram showing the locations where they have placed the stickers distributed by the Guerrilla Girls, who are internationally recognized.
The exhibit includes a wall of notes written to them, both supportive and enraged, as well as the opportunity for guests to post up their own messages. An 18-year-old girl writes of “urgent needs for guerilla action here in Pakistan!” A 14-year-old gay teenager tells of picking up the book “Bitches, Bimbos and Ballbreakers” at age 11, and finding the courage to come out. Naturally, there are fair amounts of letters demonizing them as “stupid, lesbian, feminazis” among other epithets and questioning them as to why they “hate men,” totally missing the point that this is about dismantling, redistributing, and redefining power, regardless of gender.
Attempts at attacking the Guerrilla Girls personally are doomed to fail, due to the cloak of anonymity — not only in the form of the gorilla masks that are worn in public, but in the early choice that was made not to reveal individual identities. Although there were realistic concerns about the outcomes of targeting powerful individuals, the ways in which the anonymity resonates have more to do with keeping the focus on the issues and avoiding the external appointment of leaders, stars or, as is most often the case with groups of females, preoccupations with looks and personalities that result in overshadowing the message.
What has evolved over the years is a group of women, some consistent, some shifting (there have been over 100 Guerrilla Girls to date) who have become the art. There is a shared sensibility, warmth and friendliness, and a sly humor happening behind those heavy masks, as well as a uniform possession of the history and the mission. The task is serious but the actions and educational techniques are great fun. When asked whether there was a goal to become obsolete, Kahlo replied, with a laugh, “Hope not.”
So far, in 2015, there have been Guerrilla Girl gigs in Austria, Spain, California, Georgia and Texas, with more to come. In September of 2016, they will be back in the New York area, at Stonybrook University. They write no proposals, accept no grants, have no funding stream and are indebted to nobody. I asked Kahlo how they kept going and she stated that basically it is the kindness of strangers — people are moved by the message and offer support and requests for exhibitions and other types of gigs. She described its beginnings as a “mom and mom” store — selling materials, gradually expanding. “We do not care about becoming wealthy,” she added.
The Guerrilla Girls initially began and added members through word of mouth in artistic circles. Since they are now appearing all over the world, I asked Kahlo and Kollwitz how one becomes a Guerrilla Girl. They smirked behind the gorilla teeth. “Hazing,” said Kathe. “A lot of bananas,” added Kahlo. Thinking back, I have to laugh at that question too, since the answer is so obvious. Guerrilla Girls share a spirit of rebellion with the world. Through the empowerment of education and hilarity, they encourage others to take a stand and to refuse to accept the unacceptable, to pay it forward and pass it on. Become a Guerrilla Girl of the mind and body — and who knows? You may someday be a Guerrilla Girl, too.
The Guerrilla Girls will continue to appear on the streets of New York throughout their stay here. Catch up with their actions on Facebook or Twitter, and learn more about them at guerrillagirls.com. For a schedule of activities related to the current exhibit at Abrons Arts Center (466 Grand St. at Pitt St.), visit abronsartscenter.org/galleries/guerrilla-girls-not-ready-to.html.
Puma Perl’s next Pandemonium production will partner with AH Presents and take place on Friday, May 22 at Sidewalk Cafe, 94 Ave. A (at Sixth St.). Bands and performers include The Pin-Ups, Red Gretchen, The Lord Calverts, Puma Perl and Friends and Danny’s Devil Blues. No admission, no cover, all ages, 7 p.m.–1 a.m.