"Anyone want a banana?"
Last evening, two women donning gorilla masks appeared from either side of the packed Baltimore School for the Arts auditorium, passing out bananas to audience members. After climbing onstage, they began reading obscenely sexist quotes from historically celebrated men, including Pythagoras, Martin Luther, and Auguste Renior, plus one particulary shocking letter they'd received from an Italian art critic, in which he blamed feminists for the AIDS epidemic.
They introduced themselves as Frida Kahlo and Zubeida Agha of the Guerrilla Girls, a 55-plus-member female artist collective of masked feminist vigilantes. Founded in 1985 by Kahlo and a handful of other artists, the Girls have been described by Gloria Steinem as symbolizing "the best of feminism in this country." The members are completely anonymous and use pseudonyms taken from the names of deceased women artists.
"We stand for the conscience of the art world," Kahlo declared through the bouncing lipstick mouth of her gorilla mask.
In the latest installment of The Contemporary's CoHosts speaker series, the Girls were welcomed by Stewart Watson, founder and director of Area 405, the co-hosting gallery. Watson began by recognizing Baltimore's multiple art institutions under the leadership of women, from the Contemporary to the Walters to the Baltimore Museum of Art.
The Guerrilla Girls' presentation was essentially a summary of their work, which itself summarizes and challenges the neglect and oppression of women and minorities in the art world. For nearly 40 years, the Guerrilla Girls have created iconic posters, flyers, billboards, street art, performances, demonstrations, magazines, and books criticizing art institutions for their white-male-centered leadership and programming. They use both hard, shocking facts and satire, often in direct or close contact with their subject—for example, a billboard overlooking Hollywood criticizing the lack of women and people of color in positions of power in the film industry.
Their most circulated posters include the sarcastic list of "Advantages of Being a Woman Artist," which, Kahlo explained, was created in response to criticism the group had received for being too whiny, the most common slam against "the 'F' word—feminism." 1989's "Do Women Have to be Naked to Get Into the Met. Museum?" features a gorilla-headed reproduction of Ingres' nude 'Odalisque' alongside statistics that indicate a shocking imbalance between the number of women artists shown in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the number of naked females portrayed in the artwork. When they revisited their "Weenie Count" research in 2012, they found that while there are now slightly more naked males, there are even fewer women artists shown in the Met.
In addition, Agha added, "Instead of showing the big diversity of women and artists of color, we realized that most museums were just showing the same few artists over and over."
"So we wanted to ask the question," said Kahlo, "Is tokenism a solution, or really a continuation of the problem of exclusion?"
This question prompted a Guerrilla Girl campaign that included a list of "Top Ten Signs That You're An Art World Token." Each item on the list had been experienced by a member of the Guerrilla Girls in their individual and public artist careers, such as "Everyone knows your race, gender, or sexual preference even when they don't know your work," or "No collector ever buys more than one of your pieces." Though many of these graphic and list-structured statements were created in the late '80s, they now resonate like smart, subversive Buzzfeed articles.
The Guerrilla Girls' work has been exhibited in the very institutions they criticize, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Venice Biennale. They did not neglect to address this dilemma.
"What do you do when the system you've spent your entire life attacking suddenly embraces you?" Kahlo asked.
"For now, we've made the decision to participate in the exhibitions and appearances at museums because we want to get our message out to as large an audience as possible," said Agha. "And it's a thrill to criticize art institutions right on their own wall."
"If they had walls!" Kahlo added.
The talk was regularly paused for moments of audience laughter directed at the Girls' witty presentation as well as the absurdity of the facts they exposed.
"Humor helps you fly under the radar," Kahlo said. "If you can get people who disagree with you to laugh at an issue, you have a hook right inside their brain. And once inside, you have a much better chance of converting them."
The Girls expounded on the corruption and criminal activity that occurs in the art market, which Kahlo noted is totally unregulated, and has been called the fourth-largest black market in the world, after drugs, guns, and diamonds. Big institutions such as the Whitney have seen regular conflicts of interest and even criminals on their trustee boards.
Kahlo offered the following solution to the problem of a market run by "the 1 percent of the 1 percent":
"Artists, don't make expensive art that only billionaire art collectors can afford."
"Let's have more cheap art that everyone can own, like books, zines, music, and movies. And our posters," Agha said. (Though I love this idea, as a painter, I'm skeptical of its feasibility in a widely multidisciplinary art world.)
Their masks, they explained, are still necessary. They encouraged the use of anonymity in activism, though they realized it meant working tirelessly without credit.
"The mystery of who we might be draws lots of attention to the issues we promote," said Agha. "Plus, you won't believe what comes out of your mouth while wearing a gorilla mask."
The time for audience questions was short, but Kahlo and Agha's responses indicated that the feminist experience is complicated and variable, even within their own collective. The Girls were unable to answer two questions concerning the Guerrilla Girls' stance on sex workers, and how the impact of their activism affected their experience as individual artists. To both questions, Kahlo responded that each member of the Guerrilla Girls would answer differently. As Guerrilla Girls, it seems, they work strictly as one body.
The Girls encouraged the audience to take even small steps in their own communities. While Baltimore has seen significant female arts leadership in recent years, as Stewart pointed out in her introduction, there are still obvious though frequently neglected gaps. Like the Met in New York, the modern and contemporary sections in the BMA are populated by primarily white males, and, as we addressed in our Fall Arts Guide, our art communities are not free from racial siloing.
"Even if you're working inside the system," Kahlo said, "act like an outsider. Seek out the undestroyed, the subtext, the overlooked, and the downright unfair. Then expose it. Jam your culture, remake your institutions."