Guerrilla Girls Interview (2014)
By Aurella Yussuf, originally appeared in OOMK issue 2.
How did you come up with the initial poster campaign?
Twenty-eight years ago, we got the idea to put up a couple of posters on the streets of New York City about the state of women artists in the New York Art world. It wasn’t a pretty picture. But we had a new idea about how to construct political art — to twist an issue around and present it in a way that hadn’t been seen before. The Guerrilla Girls were born: an anonymous group of artists who wear gorilla masks in public and take the names of dead women artists as pseudonyms. Who knew that our work would cause all hell to break loose? Who knew it would cause a crisis of conscience about diversity in the art world, something museums, collectors and critics had denied for a long time. Now, it’s a no brainer…. you can’t tell the story of a culture without all the voices in it. We also take on Hollywood, politics and pop culture.
What kind of response did you get from the art world, and also the general public?
Our strategy worked. Lots of people in the art world were pissed at us, but some of them changed their bad behaviour when we showed them how discriminatory they had been. Lots of other people in the art world were thrilled that someone was standing up to the entrenched, corrupt system.
As for the general public, we are still pretty much under the radar, but our influence is growing all the time. The best part; we get thousands of emails every year from people all over the world, age 8 to 80, telling us they use our work as a model for doing their own crazy kind of activism.
What are the differences between some of the challenges the group faced in the early days compared with today?
We used to be called a bunch of complaining bitches. Now they call us a bunch of creative, complaining bitches.
How has the art world changed since you highlighted these issues of racial and gender inequality?
It is very difficult to make it in any creative field, no matter who you are. That said, it is much harder for women and artists of color. 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.
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 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.
How has your approach changed over the years? i.e. new media, new targets for criticism
Our targets haven’t changed, but we are able to do big street posters and billboards now, and we do them all over the world. Our latest was in London in April and our next one will be in Bilbao, Spain in October. We also participate in exhibitions, where we criticize museums right on their own walls. And we do performances and workshops where we help participants craft activist campaigns about issues they care about.
How can you prevent a cause such as this from being seen as a fad or from being commodified?
We can’t control how we are perceived. We just try to do one thing at a time. If it works, we do another. If it doesn’t we do another anyway. We are a bunch of artists, and we’ve never been systematic, or wasted a lot of time talking about what we should do.
What advice would you have for young artists and activists today, in particular women & P.O.C?
To artists we say: we wish you success in the art world, but never forget that the system sucks and the art market and celebrity culture make everyone but the superstars feel like failures. You must speak out against art world discrimination and corruption.
To activists we say: don’t worry that you can’t change everything. Just keep trying. We promise that over time your activism will really add up to something.
What does the word feminist mean to you?
We think everyone should use the F word – Feminism. It’s outrageous that so many people who believe in the tenets of feminism — human rights including education for women worldwide, reproductive rights, freedom from sexual abuse and exploitation — still stop short of calling themselves feminists. Civil rights, women’s rights, lesbian, gay and trans rights are the great human rights movements of our time. Feminism has been demonized for so long in society and the media that it doesn’t get the respect it deserves, but it’s changed the world, revolutionized human thought and given many women lives their great grandmothers could never have imagined. Even the most repressive nations in the worlds have feminists, bravely speaking up or quietly working for women.
The Guerrilla Girls are part of the Disobedient Objects exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, now until February, 2015