Balti Gurls on Guerrilla Girls

When people think about feminist or activist art, they often think of the Guerrilla Girls. The New York-based feminist collective of women artists, who hide their identities beneath gorilla masks and take the names of women artists of the past, goes back to the mid-'80s, with over 55 members over the years. Fourteen years before the Guerrilla Girls' debut, ARTnews magazine published art historian Linda Nochlin's seminal—ahem, ovular essay 'Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?' where she challenged that notion and mapped how, through restrictive social and institutional structures, history has erased women's accomplishments and prevented their contributions from unfolding. This was also around the time when a few women artists, like Artemisia Gentileschi, were finally starting to receive their place in art history books, centuries after their deaths.

But almost 20 years later, the Guerrilla Girls still recognized a pressing need to pose the question "Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?" on a large yellow billboard with the body of Ingres' nude "Odalisque" topped with a gorilla mask.

And then they asked that question again, with a near identical billboard, in 2005. And again in 2012. The "weenie count" that follows each question barely changes year to year: In 1989, less than five percent of the artists in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's modern galleries were women, and 85 percent of the nudes were female; in 2005, there were less than three percent women artists and 83 percent female nudes; in 2012, four percent women artists and 76 percent female nudes.

This absence of considerable change in the art world—as well as shifts in the Guerrilla Girls' work—becomes clear at Baltimore Museum of Art's Front Room exhibition of the collective's posters, signs, and billboard designs spanning from 1985 to 2012. Organized by date on salon-style walls with enough text every few square feet to require hours to absorb, the images challenge the art world's lack of gender parity as well as the representation of people of color in the arts—though, noticeably, the latter is addressed more sparingly.

Perhaps one of the show's greatest strengths is simply the placement of the room it inhabits: Visitors must walk through the Front Room in order to see most of the Contemporary galleries, including the massive space dedicated almost entirely to Andy Warhol, or to the room with the flat, checkerboard floor sculpture by Carl Andre—who, by the way, was acquitted in 1988 of the murder of his wife, the lesser known artist Ana Mendieta (mentioned again below). Today, that verdict is still highly contested.

I did my own "weenie count" of the artwork currently on view in BMA's Contemporary Wing, but instead of counting the nudes (there aren't many), I counted the number of artists of color, as well as the number of women artists represented. I found that in the Contemporary galleries—including the Black Box (now showing John Waters' "Kiddie Flamingos"), the atrium, and the upstairs galleries—a third of the artists shown were women and about 23 percent were artists of color.

To discuss the BMA's show on the Guerrilla Girls, I called on Balti Gurls, Baltimore's own collective of women artists. But to be clear, I'd hesitate to compare the Balti Gurls to the Guerrilla Girls. For one thing, we know the real names and faces of the members that make up the Balti Gurls. For another, they are all young women of color. And though some consider their work a form of activism, founder Jenné Afiya claims Balti Gurls is not an activist group. "I've been careful to never label myself as an activist or the group as an activist group," she says. "When you say that you're dealing with race and gender people are like oh, radicals."

According to their mission statement, the Balti Gurls aim "to cultivate platforms and 'creative safe space' for other women of color," whereas the Guerrilla Girls "use facts, humor and outrageous visuals to expose gender and ethnic bias as well as corruption in politics, art, film, and pop culture."

To put it simply, the Balti Gurls create; the Guerrilla Girls critique.

I spoke with Afiya and fellow Balti Gurls Jessica Hyman (also known as DJ Trillnatured), N'Deye Diakhate, Khadija Nia Adell, and Joy Postell (pictured on the cover are Afiya, Hyman, Adell, and Diakhate as well as members Suldano Abdiruhman, Stephanie Alexandra Wallace, and Ashley N. Chambers, who were not present for the discussion). The conversation stretched out over two hours and the following text is merely a fraction of the many issues we explored—the benefits and failures of anonymity, "mingling" with powerful institutions, self-preservation, "realness," tokenism, erasure, and Tim Burton, to name a few. This version of the conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

CP: I read a Hyperallergic interview with two of the founding Guerrilla Girls members, "Frida Kahlo" (who has also been criticized for taking the name of a Latina artist) and "Käthe Kollwitz," who admitted that they're white, and they asked audiences to take their word for it that they're a racially diverse group. How do you all feel about that; should we hold them to the same standard of diversity and transparency as they do of art institutions?

Jessica Hyman: Seeing bodies of color is important. And saying that you're diverse is excellent, it's great, no shade; but it means something to be able to see those bodies and what they represent.

Joy Postell: Why do they wear masks?

CP: They say they're all working artists and when they started they felt that unless they did this stuff anonymously they would be risking their independent careers. In 2016, I wonder if they could do this unmasked.

JP: [Masks are] kind of cowardly. That perspective, it could either be seen as strategic or it could be seen as cowardly. You claim you're this, you claim you're that, but you're still hiding your face.

Jenné Afiya: The first time I became familiar with the Guerrilla Girls was in AP Art History; you get to 1970-something and it's like, "alright, we're gonna talk about feminist art"—and it's Ana Mendieta, the Guerrilla Girls, and Cindy Sherman. So, one woman of color, who tragically was her killed by her husband—he's still working. As a young black girl looking at this, I took issue with this choosing the gorilla mask, choosing that image. And I also know that there's banana imagery as well. I don't know if to obscure your identity you have to take on that sort of charged image. Especially because we're all working in the field of creating images, I don't think that's a not known thing, if you're an artist and this is what you're exploring and mining. So that was something I noticed very early on as a question mark—what is that about? And if there are women of color, particularly black women involved, has that been a conversation, and what is the response to that? Because there are many other ways to obscure your identity that don't have any reference to any of that, to animals, to anything like that.

Khadija Nia Adell: When new members come in are they still sticking to that kind of manifesto of when they arrived as a collective group? What is the discussion around that?

N'Deye Diakhate: There's just been a long history of not being able to trust white people when they say something's diverse.

JH: And what's your definition of "diverse," because we have different definitions.

CP: The Guerrilla Girls are something of an institution now, so the fact that they treat themselves as an exception to the transparency they encourage other institutions to embrace seems questionable—though I do understand why they started out as an anonymous collective.

KA: [The masks] take away the accountability in a certain way, like having people to critique your life as artists, as activists. [This] is something we're all privy to and should have the right to protect our privacy as people and as artists, but there's also like, yeah that would open them up to oh, well, maybe you're a racist in your other life. It opens you up to that kind of social critique that we already have a kind of unhealthy but also healthy relationship with when it comes to celebrity and artists as celebrity, artists as activist celebrity.

JA: It's like a really passive way to be an activist. It's like all the perks of being an activist with zero accountability.

CP: Though the work in the show touches on race, it seems that overall the Guerrilla Girls speak for women as a general identity. Do you think that the work adequately addressed issues faced by women of color?

JA: There were mentions of race but none of it ever felt like, we're gonna break down some shit, like, y'all ain't including black women. Black women were included as part of a list of underrepresented people, which is fine. But maybe spending time with each of those groups—like what is it like for a Latina woman, a Black woman, an Asian woman, a Queer woman? So much of their stuff throughout the timeline still reads as very general. That definitely speaks to the general problem of women not being included [in arts institutions] but it's almost like "what's your lane?" and this might sound bad, but like stay in it? Don't use me or other women of color.

KA: We're at a point now, like is this enough for 2016?...You can't just drop these bombs without really educating people about what you're saying. So walking into that space I didn't know how to feel about what I was seeing on the wall and I still don't really know. But I also expected to be able to digest it differently than having all of that in those three small—it was kinda cramped in a way, even though it's a fairly large space.

JH: But education-by-meme is all that exists now. There's no nuance, it's trying to prove a point by shock value and it can be effective, but if you don't look up the rest then you're kinda lost on it.

ND: I appreciate the fact that it's all very text heavy or all posters, just because I'm into that; but just in order to get those bits of information out quickly in that kind of manner, if you're talking about that it has to have that amount of specificity. Otherwise it gets into that jumble of that lack of education, that education-by-meme.

JA: I also would have really wanted to see the original sites of some of these pieces. There was a timeline but there was no context for that timeline and that would've helped me be better able to see, like the movie poster ["The Birth Of Feminism"] for example, was that in a movie theater originally? Was that in a gallery? That would've helped me understand the point they were trying to make at the time.

CP: Did you see anything in the show that was new to you, or maybe hadn't seen expressed that way before?

ND: The one poster that was specifically about black women was really interesting, how there were only four contemporary museums in New York that showed black women at all and only one of them showed more than one.

KA: I wonder how these statistics compare to what's happening today in the art world, because with the people that I follow and the artwork that I'm looking at, the black art world, the African diaspora art world, the "minority" art world is huge. I wonder [about] the numbers today, and then I wonder if that's even really important, whether or not we're just making what we're making and that's what matters.

JA: This whole attacking the institution thing just really gets in a circle. For example, a lot of black women aren't in the Whitney, or black women are in the paintings but [they're] not the artists. But do I want to be in the Whitney, though? Maybe I don't, maybe I'm not down for participating in an institution that has upheld Eurocentric beauty standards, creative standards, education standards—maybe that's not the goal. Attacking the institution makes the institution a goal. I get it, I'm down for that critique, but maybe it just gets into this repetitive cycle and maybe that's why the Guerrilla Girls' work over time is still very similar because the institutions are not changing. And when do you kinda get to this point where you're like, fuck it…The black art world for us is so much online, it's so much Instagram, it's so much other things. I'm not just going to the BMA, the Walters, the Met….Even as a kid, I knew better. Like, who am I gonna go see, Henry O. Tanner? That's probably the only black person they got in there, and he's man, and you probably wouldn't know he was black because you know, no one's really saying that except on the little wall text in .8 font. That's why I'm mad, and for me, creating a group like [Balti Gurls] and asking all these wonderful women to be a part of it, it was so much about making your own space.

ND: Instead of trying to fix the institution you deconstruct it as a whole—not by actually deconstructing it but by making it less valuable. If all the value happens outside of it then you kinda remove its power.

CP: The Guerrilla Girls' focus is really New York; that's where the money is. When the Guerrilla Girls put out their "Report Cards" where they show the number of women exhibited in New York galleries, does that have any relevance for Baltimore?

JH: The state of the arts here is influenced by the uprising in ways that we don't even know yet. It's very activist-heavy. People want that story still, and people still want to talk about it and write about it.

JA: That's a good point. If you had asked me that question close to two years ago now, I would've had a more concrete answer, but the scene has changed so much and has been so informed by the uprising and who kind of floated to the top as a result of that and that's still very much the conversation. And you know, the two or three Baltimores existing at one time—I really enjoy that that's a part of the conversation but my fear is: So when this is no longer the topic-of-the-day, what is everything going to shake out to look like? What are these arts districts still gonna look like? Who's gonna get funding? Who's gonna have space?...None of these people who made really amazing work or became known as a result of [the uprising]—and many of them are a part of underrepresented groups—if they don't end up being in the long run or benefitting from the terrible situation that caused all that, then what's the point?

CP: It does feel like there's been radical change in the various scenes here—at least, more radical than in the past—and it is hard to know what to make of that. In some ways, it's a new city.

JA: The amount of development in the past year or two has been staggering…The whole development of the Station North area becoming a district, not a couple of blocks. City Arts 2 and the Parkway, the Hopkins/MICA Film Centre opening, so much has changed visually in just one year. And the fact that it's so close to where the uprising really took place also says a lot.

JH: Another part of the conversation about art and self-proclaimed activist art is, who's been doing this and who hasn't? It's an elephant in the room. There's this weird unspoken kind of "who's really from Baltimore and who's not?" I find myself being hyper aware and kinda checking myself like, what's the "real Baltimore" gonna say about this? You know, if I decide to be vocal about so-and-so. But then why do I have to check myself? I'm not out here frontin' or trying to play a role that's not mine.

JA: It's just this whole thing people wanna be like, oh you're from here, you're from there; like, yeah I couldn't control where I lived when I was 15 years old. That's another conversation that undermines everything [rather than], what is the work that you're trying to do right now? And how is that benefiting the goals that you have and the mission that you have, and are you doing what you say you're doing? A lot of the real and who's fake conversation really stems from a weird place.

JH: It's always in the background. I just won Best DJ in the Club [in City Paper's Best of Baltimore issue] and I know people are talking. There are other DJs who were born and raised in Baltimore who are dope as hell in the club who have been doing it for years who weren't awarded that. I understand that, but I also don't wear the award on my chest either. It's like that dance again, it's conflicting. I feel it personally, not on like a Balti Gurls level, but personally I feel it.

JA: There's a long line of black people feeling guilty for success, for accomplishment, and what is that?

JH: The "real Baltimore", the people who define themselves as that don't think that somehow you deserve that recognition, but if they got recognition from the same institution they'd love it—no shade.

JA: That's just really the, who's black and who's not conversation. That's what that is, that real conversation, you are not black enough, I'm blacker than you, when we all black. "Real" is a code word.

KA: It's simultaneously distracting yet important. The core emotion of that is representing experience and being real about that and not being fake and just not making shit up. And not misrepresenting people, but there's also this larger goal of us collectively being successful in the things that we do and supporting each other. Community building is much more important than whether or not you are telling a story that I think is accurate. It's all about personal experience.

JA: Not everyone is consumed with the "real" idea of real. Some people are just really excited to see black folks doing their thing and being able to do their thing.

ND: It seems as if only one narrative is considered to be an authentic narrative. We're all allotted our oppressions and we're all allotted our privileges and kinda realize where we stand with that and how we operate with that. [But] as long as our work is pure and we're really giving to our people and we're really giving to our community, then what else is there at the end of the day?

JH: Whoever your people are, you don't have to front. Like just stay in your lane, and don't try and play a role that's not yours to play.

KA: People just feel shaded by that.

JP: I was reading this book "Afrocentricity" and the author made a point that was really tight: There two forms of consciousness, of oppression, when you're aware of what's happening to you, and then there's also the consciousness of victory, so that you can be victorious over the oppression that's happening to you. Some people just stay in stage one and they perpetuate the oppression because they're just so focused on the oppression that's happening to them, but they're not focused on "how can I create a way out of this oppression? How can I be victorious in this situation?" It's also a state of mind. Some people really just be on that, they see what's wrong and that's all they see. "That's what's wrong! That's what's wrong! That's what's wrong!" But bitch, you ain't offering no solutions. Straight up, where the solutions at? That's really what it's about. Then when you start to offer solutions, it just throws people off because they're not on that level. They're not like, "I can get over what's wrong, I can create."

JH: But also that mindset can go in the wrong direction when people feel like, well, if you ain't gonna do nothing about it don't comment on it, don't say nothing, get off Facebook, don't write no statuses; either shut up or don't do nothing. There's a middle ground. You can still talk about your experiences. I completely agree with what you said, but it's almost like, if you're not gonna be out there picketing in the streets, then don't say shit, and I think that's too much of an extreme. And also what you said about the consciousness of victory, along with that goes the consciousness of privilege and as a woman of color it can be kinda hard to think about your privilege. But we all have it.

JP: Picketing and going to protests is not the only form of protesting. Like me, us, being happy low-key is a form of protest, 'cause look at all the fuck shit being thrown at you. Look at the way they're trying to bring the energy down so that you're literally mad all day. They want you to be mad all day! So you can do some rude shit to somebody that didn't do nothing to you and ruin someone else's day. It's all a cycle. Literally being happy or standing in your power is a form of protest. Me breathing is a form of protest because I'm alive in America in a country that does not like me, that cannot stand me. My presence is a protest.

ND: It's like that Audre Lorde quote, "Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare." It's real, for oppressed people, just us being here is phenomenal.

CP: There's this one poster in the show that says "You're seeing less than half the picture without the vision of women artists and artists of color." That's something I think about a lot, not just with art but in everything, we—everyone, including white men—have missed out on so much, not because it wasn't happening, but because it wasn't acknowledged or recognized or recorded in any way.

JH: I wouldn't say that it's always the case that they've missed out, I think they know about it, they've seen it, they've heard about it but they're taking from it and using it and appropriating it. So they're definitely benefitting from it, they're just not putting it up on a platform for the art that it is. They're infusing it into their work and calling it theirs.

JA: I think about imagery from the '70s for example that's not necessarily black imagery, but it can read as black, and we're black people looking around AND it's like this some appropriative shit. Maybe not in those terms, but have black people always recognized that white people/mainstream culture copies them? The answer is yes. I just think we have an entirely different set of language now and we can easily call things out because of the Internet. It's at this crazy level of just out and out, it's not even trying to hide it. But also, rock and roll became white in less than two decades so anything is possible. Twenty years from now rap could be seen as a white music genre. You never know. Even now the stories that we choose to tell ourselves are an interesting conversation. A lot of it serves respectability politics and what we feel white people wanna see from us.

JH: Or like the first so-and-so-to win so-and-so.

JA: The fact that there are still black "firsts" is beautiful but crazy.

KA: How Misty Copeland being the first black principal dancer in a company that's been around for decades and has determined ballet standards, you know, just crazy shit like that….People have this expectation for the art world to somehow be free of the problems that the world is still dealing with. It makes complete sense that you would be missing half the picture when shit is not even acknowledged or it's acknowledged and stolen and denied at the same time. We're always dealing with this conversation. It's still the same, unfortunately. And it's not even half the picture, it's most of the picture because when you think of the world, Europe is the smallest effing continent that we have! The rest of the world is filled with black and brown people and yes, you know there are Asian countries where like skin is lighter but then the people working in the fields have brown skin who are producing most of the world's food supply. The picture is never clear.

CP: The Guerrilla Girls' poster about tokenism brings up a point about being the only woman or person of color in a show. How do you feel about exhibitions curated by white people or men or white men that explicitly show only women or people of color, so the premise is simply the artists' collective identity? I've seen that happen recently here in Baltimore.

JH: Mhm. It's a thing now.

ND: That's the premise?

JH: You gotta be careful about that if you're not a woman or not a woman of color, you really have to be intentional.

JA: That's when I say you need to invite somebody—here's guest curator so-and-so.

ND: I also kind of resent people in this example, men just having women artists [in a show], them being women is the genre. That happens a lot when it comes to people in privileged positions having marginalized people and being like, "Oh I'm gonna put on a show of women or of brown people" and it's like this is the topic. People talking about their own experiences is one thing but it just reinforces how y'all view us. It just reinforces how men view women and how white folks view people of color. It's just, this is our thing and you wanna hear us talk about our thing. Be woman-y.

JA: And this is the case of a bunch of men asking a bunch of women to be in the show—what "type" of women did you choose? What type of work do they have? How many naked women are on the walls? Are they all white? Are they all cis? Are they all straight? When people do these [exhibitions that announce] "I'm gonna show you the work of a woman," "I'm gonna show you the work of a black person," or whatever, it very much falls into tropes and stereotypes. I'm not about it. It just doesn't have to be that way. We've talked a lot about staying in your lane and that's kind of where I'm at.

JH: A lot of times these men or whoever benefits from events like this, they're the ones people want to talk to or they're the ones people wanna reward for doing such a good thing, at the end of the day. So just really be honest with yourself—why am I doing it?

JA: People have said to me a lot about Balti Gurls, "I love women." You can love women all you want, but are you down for the revolution? Are you down for my liberation? You maybe love having sex with women; there's a lot of things you can love about women. But are you down for me to be an independent person?

KA: The idea of putting on a show that highlights one group or one this or one that, it's not even just white men as the catalyst that has become tricky. It's even groups of women putting on shows and deciding whether or not we're going to pointedly say that this is an all-female show or whether or not we're just gonna have a show with the intention to have all people in the show be women artists. There's a difference between those two things and that's something that even women have to be conscious of as well. What are we putting out here; why are we doing it?

CP: It would be a very different thing if this was a show that was all women artists but that wasn't the point. That's not part of make the statement. What if this was a show about, I don't know, color abstraction, and by the way all the artists are women?

JP: What's understood doesn't have to be said.

ND: And that goes into normalizing it, too.

KA: Yeah, like not making it the ticket.

JP: Or fetishizing it.

JH: When I put together Loop Dreams at the Crown, I intentionally didn't want to call it "Girl" anything, even though I will be booking all women or non-binary people, because I want it to feel normal.

KA: It's true. Like what we were talking about with labels and expectations, even just putting the words "girl power" on it like that—even though I know that's a real show and it's a great show—putting that on it can sometimes bring expectations from outside people and it's weird because you don't know if you care about that, if that's what you're really catering to but you can't also act like that doesn't exist.

JA: A lot of times people think marketing things like that can be very "cute." I even caught myself, like the way we present [our music and DJ showcase] Edge Control. Is it all about being very femme; is it all about representing one type of way to be a woman? But at the same time, speaking of Edge Control, a lot of people realize, once they get into a space, that is a bunch of women musicians and DJs, how rare that is. Like in life, not just even going to a show. Like, damn; it's a bunch of women in the room and they're collaborating and doing their thing. That's another thing, if you're a bunch of women "obviously you don't get along." I've been asked so much "how do you work with such a big group of women?" and I'm like, "um, it's not that hard." There's this whole idea that because we're a bunch of women we're always at each other's throats.

KA: Which is funny, because there are statistics—you know, whatever those really mean—saying that women are more savvy in business and always have been. That's so funny. All of a sudden you want to flip the conversation.

ND: Like we're better leaders—

KA: More compassionate, maybe. It gets into a weird realm as well because those qualities are found in anyone.

JH: Also, what do we mean when we say emotional? We call women emotional because they display "non-masculine" emotions but how emotional are men? They have a very specific type of toxic emotion which is anger that they are allowed to display freely. That's very emotional. But we don't call it emotional, we call it macho or whatever. But it's emotions. It's just funny how language is used.

"Front Room: Guerrilla Girls" is on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art through March 12, 2017. For more information, visit artbma.org. For more information on Balti Gurls, visit baltigurls.com.

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