Arts | “Guerrilla Girls: Art in Action” at Pomona College Museum of Art
By: Ashley Solis
“Thirty years ago, we had a new idea about how to construct political art using facts, humor and outrageous visuals. We wanted to change people’s minds about issues,” states Kathe Kollwitz, one of the founders of the feminist art collective the Guerrilla Girls. For those of you who haven't heard of the Guerrilla Girls, they are a group of anonymous feminist, female artists that are focused on dismantling sexism and racism in the art world. They maintain their anonymity by wearing gorilla masks at every appearance and using the names of deceased female artists. Activism, feminism, and art—what more could a feminist arts and community writer ask for? I had an opportunity to not only visit the “Guerrilla Girls: Art in Action” exhibit at the Pomona College Museum of Art in Claremont, I also was afforded the chance to learn more about this feminist art movement through an exclusive interview with Kathe Kollwitz.
Q: Tell me about how the Guerrilla Girls began.
Kathe Kollwitz: Imagine you were a young female artist pissed off about the lack of opportunities for women. Imagine you went to a protest outside the Museum of Modern Art after it opened an exhibition that included only 13 women out of 169 artists. Imagine you saw immediately that no one cared. Imagine you had an AHA! moment and realized there HAD to be a better way—a more contemporary, creative way—to break through people’s beliefs that museums knew best and there was no discrimination in art. Imagine you had the idea to put up street posters telling the truth about the pathetic number of women and artists of color exhibited in museums and galleries. Imagine you called some friends to a meeting, named yourselves the Guerrilla Girls, and passed the hat around to pay for printing.
We snuck around NY in the middle of the night [passing] up in-your-face posters, and all hell broke loose. Since then, we have done almost 200 projects—posters, billboards, magazine pieces, exhibitions, performances, workshops, books and actions. Today you can find the Guerrilla Girls and our work all over the world. We might be doing an activist workshop with high school students; an appearance at Yoko Ono’s Meltdown Festival in London; a performance about corruption in the billionaire-controlled art system of museums and galleries; or large scale exhibitions dissing the great museums of the world right on their own walls.
Q: When the Guerrilla Girls first came on the scene, did the group ever receive any backlash from feminists because of use of the term "girls?”
Kollwitz: Yes. But we called ourselves girls to show that we were something different. That was before “Girl Power” and “Riot Grrrls.”
Q: What, if any, major improvements have you noticed regarding the gender inequality in the institution of art?
Kollwitz: Things are improving slowly for women and artists of color today, but too slowly. Most art schools and university art departments have at least 60% female students, but most contemporary art museums have less than 20% women in their collections. You can’t tell the story of a culture without all the voices of that culture. Then there is the art world and the art market, which are full of poseurs, snobs, insider traders, and crooks. The art market is the playground of billionaires, the 1% of the 1%. And, it’s pretty much unregulated. In fact, it has been described as the 4th largest black market in the world—after drugs, guns and diamonds.
Q: What are the most rewarding and challenging parts of your activism?
Kollwitz: The rewarding part is meeting and/or hearing from thousands of people all over the world who are standing up for what they believe in, often using our work as a model for their own activism. The challenging part is changing people’s minds about issues. We don’t always succeed, but we are always trying to deepen our critique and create more effective, unforgettable projects.
Q: What do you believe has been your most influential projects or campaigns, and what about them or the process of creating them made them so prolific?
Kollwitz: We are always thinking about the next campaign, but perhaps our most influential campaign has been "Do Women Have to be Naked to Get Into the Met Museum [Metropolitan Museum of Art]?” Once you see these works—about how women’s bodies are appreciated, but their art isn’t; it’s a game changer. People never forget it. And when they go to museums, they start counting the works by women and artists of color on display—just like we do.
Q: What new projects are the Guerrilla Girls working on right now?
Kollwitz: In May of 2015, we’re doing a sticker campaign, pop up exhibition, and party in New York to celebrate our 30th birthday. In June we’ll be doing street projects and a performance in Reykjavik [Iceland]. Then in the fall, we head to Minneapolis, where we’ll have interventions in museums there. Plus more gigs, workshops and exhibitions in the US and beyond. Our retrospective of almost 200 works is at Matadero Madrid through April, and our exhibition “Not Ready to Make Nice” is traveling around the US.
Q: How can people help spread your message?
Kollwitz: Do your own crazy, creative activist work! And stand up for feminism. We think it’s crazy that so many people who believe in the tenets of feminism are still afraid to call themselves feminists. Feminism doesn’t get the respect it deserves. Womens' rights, civil rights, lesbian, gay, bi and transgender rights are the great human rights movements of our time. Feminism is changing the world, revolutionizing human thought and giving many women lives their grandmothers, could never have imagined. Women’s resistance movements are exploding all over the world. The “F” word “feminism” is also the “F” word for the future. Join us on the right side of history.
If you want to view the 85 posters, handbills, books and newsletters created by the Guerilla Girls, the exhibit is on display until May 17, 2015 at the Pomona College Museum of Art in Claremont. The exhibition demonstrates how the Guerrilla Girls utilized feminist activism to unveil the exclusion of female artists in the art community.
Visit Pomona College Museum of Art at 330 N. Claremont Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Museum hours are Tuesday thru Sunday, 12-5p.m. and Thursday from 5-11p.m. for ART AFTER HOURS thru April 30, 2015. To learn more, visit their website.