Thursday, January 31, 2008

Women's Issues: Guerrilla Girls fight for gender and racial equality

A group of New York based female activists known as the Guerrilla Girls has been fighting for gender and racial equality for almost 25 years. For producer Behnam Nateghi, VOA's Carla Coolman tells us how these women use facts, humor and visuals to inspire a shift in the way women artists appear in museums and the media.

Wearing gorilla masks and taking the names of dead female artists as pseudonyms, a group of female activists promotes equality in the art world and society.

Known as the Guerrilla Girls, these women describe themselves as the feminist masked avengers with the mission to expose sexism, racism and corruption in politics, art, film and pop culture.

With her gorilla mask on, Frida Kahlo, co-founder of the group, explains how their work started almost 25 years ago. "Well, in 1985 a group of us got so angry about an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (in New York City) that was supposed to be a complete survey of international art. And, out of 200 artists, a little fewer than 200 artists, less than 17 of them were women. And the curator even made a more annoying claim. He said, ‘Anyone who is not in my show should rethink his career.’ So that made a lot of us really angry. And we decided that we had to find some new techniques to make people sit up and analyze the art world in terms of its exclusion."

Under the belief that women were mostly portrayed as naked models and not artists, the Guerrilla Girls launched their first project in New York City.

They put up posters all around the city condemning the gender and racial imbalance of artists represented in galleries and museums. Attracting the media's attention, the Guerilla Girls made headlines; and soon became famous for their clever visual art and inspired street theater. With posters, billboards, stickers and other visuals, as well as lectures and performances, they creatively infuse humor with facts to fight gender inequality.

Anonymity plays an important role in their efforts. By choosing pseudonyms and wearing masks, Kahlo says they try to focus people's attention on the issues and not on the women themselves.

"Well, we were guerrillas, freedom fighters, before we were gorillas. The art world is such a refined place, as you can see from here. The idea that there had to be freedom fighters in the art world was just too shocking. But we really thought that was, you know, important. We took the word "girls" because that was a word that was always used to disarm women, if you call them girls. So we said: if we call ourselves girls, the issue was out on the table."

Their efforts have spanned the globe as the Guerrilla Girls have taken their feminist campaign to England, The Netherlands, Mexico, Spain, and even to places where gender inequality is more prevalent, such as Turkey and China.

Maura Reilly is the curator at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at New York's Brooklyn Museum. She says the Guerrilla Girls' impact is enormous. "They have helped, I think, galleries and museums worldwide begin to achieve a level of kind of consciousness as to their own inherent, kind of institutionalized sexism and racism."

In recognition of their efforts, the Brooklyn Museum awarded the Guerrilla Girls a plaque for their contributions to the world of art. But for Kahlo and the group there is much more work to be done.

"But until then, we need places like the Feminist Center for Art. Otherwise, the voices of women artists will be ignored," said Kahlo.

The Guerrilla Girls promise to continue being warriors in their crusade to promote feminism and gender equality.

By Behnam Nateghi New York City
Published with the permission of Voice of America