Guerrilla Girls on the go
Guy Adams

AFTER a quarter of a century railing against the establishment, the art world’s most prominent group of radical feminists has decided to join it. The Guerrilla Girls, a collection of radical, Left-leaning pop artistes, famed for wearing gorilla masks to highlight sexism, racism, and other pillars of injustice, have announced that its historic archive will be kept, for posterity, by the bluest of America’s blue-chip cultural institutions, the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.

The Guerrilla Girls is a collection of radical, Left-leaning pop artists, famed for wearing gorilla masks to highlight sexism, racism and other pillars of injustice
The Guerrilla Girls is a collection of radical, Left-leaning pop artists, famed for wearing gorilla masks to highlight sexism, racism and other pillars of injustice

For the research institute, founded by the extraordinarily wealthy (and distinctly male) oil tycoon Jean Paul Getty, to be entrusted with the subversive group's archive may seem at best counter-intuitive, and at worst downright hypocritical.

But the Guerrilla Girls have always trod a fine line between radicalism and the mainstream. Since 1985, when they began producing their trademark brand of provocative protest posters, badges and leaflets, they have been lauded by the very establishment they seek to undermine.

The group was formed in 1985, when a dozen like-minded female activists picketed the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where an exhibition, claiming to be a definitive survey of contemporary painting and sculpture, included just 13 women in its 169-featured artists.

Few people paid any attention to that protest. So the group’s members decided on a new tack: they began wearing gorilla masks, and fly-posting Manhattan with hundreds of smartly designed black and white posters outlining their various beefs.

The typical Guerrilla Girls poster, which they’ve been producing variations of ever since, contains a selection of statistics and bold headlines that level charges of racism or sexism at various quarters of the arts world, from white, male critics and artists to galleries and museums.

Their first poster, produced in 1985, listed 42 contemporary artists. "What do these artists have in common?" it asked. Answer: "They all allow their work to be shown in galleries that show no more than 10 per cent women, or none at all". Other early works railed at the tendency of collectors to pay more for work by male artists than that of their female contemporaries.

The Guerrilla Girls

The group attracted a wealth of criticism in the early years. But the public loved them.

Initially, the posters were printed in batches of 500, and plastered up by gorilla-mask-clad activists in the dead of night. But soon they began to attract acclaim, and collectors gobbled them up, providing the group with the funds to get their works on giant billboards.

"We’re trying to change people’s minds by using facts that they may not have seen and presenting them in an interesting way," Kathe Kollwitz, a founding member of the group, said in an interview recently. The group members assume the identities of dead female artists to maintain anonymity.

"What we do is humorous. It’s satire. One of our goals has always been to confound the notion of what feminism is. Everyone hates to see women complain. But I think we have found a way to do it so that no one complains."

In the 1990s, they branched out into the world of politics, with posters railing against rape laws, and the religious right. Recent targets include George W. Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger. "Don’t let your Governor grope you" proclaimed a cut-out ‘Schwarzenegger shield’ they produced. In 2002, they took out a large advert during Oscar season, featuring an ‘anatomically correct Oscar statue.’ Next to the picture was the observation that no woman had ever won the ‘Best Director’ award.

Today, the number of Guerrilla Girls members remains a secret. Kollwitz says that over the years, between 50 and 70 people have been involved, but only about a dozen are active at any one time.

As to accusations of selling out, Kollwitz says that none of the organisation’s members will directly profit from the sale of the group’s archives.

By arrangement with The Independent