The Guerrilla Girls

In the world of art, the absence of recognition for a female artist’s creative work and limited agency often fuels frustration and anger. It’s a world where suspicion looms over the prioritization of works created by white middle/upper-class men over diverse perspectives and ideas. This simmering frustration turns into rage in response to the events of colonial violence that plague politically charged spaces, including the art world. Yet, this effect isn’t confined to the art world alone; it becomes a driving force for change. This transformation of rage from a passive emotion into a catalyst for collective action is at the heart of the political and aesthetic work carried out by the Guerrilla Girls.

Guerrilla Girls and their disruptive + revolutionary art

This collective of artists defines themselves as an anonymous group “who use disruptive headlines, outrageous visuals, and killer statistics to expose gender and ethnic bias and corruption in art, film, politics, and pop culture”. (Guerilla Girls, 2023)

Their story begins in 1984 when the collective was formed in response to the MoMA exhibition “An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture,” which shockingly featured only 13 women artists out of 200. The pivotal year, however, was 1985. As revealed in a 2018 interview with the Guerrilla Girls conducted by Tate Modern, their initial year was far from successful.

Despite organizing a protest shortly after the exhibition, “everyone was willing to excuse the art world, so we decided that day that we had to figure out a way to make people care” (1:50). The following April, the neighborhoods of Soho and the East Village in New York City were flooded with posters denouncing sexism and racism in art museums.

Their adept use of satire, statistics, and direct criticism towards artists and institutions complicit in oppressing and exploiting women’s work captured the viewer’s attention. Thousands began to ask: What’s not being shown in art museums? Why is that artwork being shown? And how did it get there? (Guerrilla Girls, 2018, 5:40). Watch the video below:

To appreciate the performative aspect of this collective action and denunciation, it’s essential to remember who these represented women were:

After three decades, the identity of Guerrilla Girls’ members remains a mystery, but their gorilla masks have become iconic. To commemorate remarkable female artists from history, they adopted their names, such as Paula Modersohn-Becker, Zubeida Agha, Alice Neel, Eva Hesse, Käthe Kollwitz, Alma Woodsey Thomas, Frida Kahlo, and Georgia O’Keeffe.

Guerrilla Girls - Paula Modersohn-Becker

Paula Modersohn-Becker: Born in 19th-century Germany, she was an Expressionist painter acknowledged for her intimate portraits and self-portraits. The artist depicted childhood experiences, the transformative journey of life, and the effects of age through women’s faces.

She guided her work to capture the rhythm of their deepest feelings, employing the distortion, exaggeration, and fantasy characteristic of the artistic movement. 

Zubeida Agha

Zubeida Agha: She was among the pioneering modern artists of Pakistan. In 1949, she became the first artist to present a solo modern art exhibition. Additionally, she studied Political Science and Philosophy, garnering recognition for her adept use of colour to convey her inner contemplations about the world.

Guerrilla Girls - Alice Neel

Alice Neel: One of the most influential American artists of the 20th century, she is renowned for her adept use of figurative painting techniques, characterized by a faithful representation of reality. Additionally, she gained recognition for her activism within the American Communist Party. Her works, which she preferred to the term “pictures of the people,” not only captured the political dynamics of diverse individuals in New York and its neighborhoods like Harlem, but also conveyed the myriad physical expressions of the human body.

The Guerrilla Girls | Rock & Art

Frida Kahlo: After a devastating bus accident in 1925, the Mexican artist began to portray her life and identity from the easel near her bed. The artist navigated pain, passion, and her subconscious.  Her work has touched many generations in Latin America and worldwide for its exaltation of indigenous Mexican culture and her sense of social justice and political commitment to the feminist struggle.

The Guerrilla Girls | Rock & Art

Käthe Kollwitz: She was a German socialist artist (printmaker), who articulated her artistic productions in tune with the political and social reality that emerged after the development of the First World War. Through delicate lines and skilful use of shadows, her works portrayed the emotional and physical toll inflicted by the brutality of this political upheaval, capturing sensations of pain, death, and desolation from her compassionate point of view.

Alma Woodsey Thomas

Alma Woodsey Thomas: The first Afro-American artist to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, she began her journey at 35 as a tutor at Shaw Junior High School in Washington, D.C. However, she simultaneously focused on dedicating herself to learning more about painting. She also established the first art gallery in D.C. public schools in 1938. Her artwork features abstract shapes with colourful patterns that convey a sense of visual rhythm. 

By exploring the lives of these women and their use of art to confront their unique female experiences, it becomes clear that the Guerrilla Girls sought to expose a biased system that marginalized the feminine viewpoint both in art and history. Creating a vibrant and feminist collective memory emerged as a central strategy for their activism.

Their narrative, infused with sardonic humor, conveys truths that challenge prevailing visual norms. Despite these norms seeming outdated and on the verge of obsolescence, they still shape perceptions of beauty and authenticity.  By positioning themselves as artists from the past, they aid in unraveling the complexities of their political mission.

This gesture not only establishes their distinct identity, but also reflects the experiences of women. As a result, their names go beyond mere rhetoric; they serve as gateways to histories influenced by their unique contexts. This, in turn, fosters a sense of shared experience among women and their creative processes within a hostile world. 

Prof. Anne Teresa Demo, an assistant professor of Communication Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, delves deeply into the theorization of the Guerrilla Girls’ political activism techniques in her article titled “The Guerrilla Girls’ Comic Politic of Subversion” (2000). In her work, she demonstrates that their thought-provoking statements can be categorized using Kenneth Burke’s discursive tool, ‘perspective by incongruity,’ as it “pokes fun at the failures of the social structure but also offers a comic corrective to such failings” (p. 134).

For instance, Demo explains how this incongruity is evident in the way the Guerrilla Girls present themselves, with their gorilla suits contrasting with traditional notions of femininity. Additionally, as mentioned earlier, their use of the names of overlooked female artists serves as a denunciation of the omission and erasure of women from the history of art. This concern is directly addressed in the Guerrilla Girls’ book titled “The Guerrilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Art” (1998), where the collective conducts conversations with artists from Ancient Greece to the present day.

Guerrilla girls Statement

Demo argues that this revision of history challenges the very course of art history itself, rendering “the term ‘woman artist’ an oxymoron within the history of art” (p. 144). By presenting this intentional incongruity, by giving us a glimpse into a past that no longer exists, reality enables us to confront a truth where greatness does not necessarily mean womanhood. This offers an opportunity to rewrite history, to correct the narrative that has been presented so far.