Guerrilla Girls live up to their feminist avenger reputation

By CAMYLLE FLEMING ’14

Contributing Writer

“Anybody want a banana?” With these words ‘Frida Kahlo’ began the Guerrilla Girls lecture, presented by the Davis Museum’s Student Advisory Committee (DMSAC), last Thursday evening. Frida Kahlo de Rivera was a revered Mexican artist of the mid 20th century, but the ‘Frida’ who sauntered into  Jewett Auditorium, enthusiastically lobbing fruit at students in the crowd, was an anonymous member of the Guerilla Girls, wearing all black and a gorilla mask. Upon taking the stage, the artist-in-disguise promptly commanded our attention with her recital of a few quotes: one from the ancient philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras, one from German theologian and ecclesiastical reformer Martin Luther and another from a present-day Italian artist. All were similar in their brazen propagation of misogynist hate speech.

The Guerrilla Girls—whom Frida was representing—formed in 1985, shortly after an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, which unapologetically showcased 169 artists, of which only 13 were female. The group, which has been staffed by 55 female members over the years, took to the streets with a poster campaign designed to hold the world-renowned institution accountable for its discriminatory practices. Unfortunately, at that time, the MoMa was no outlier.

“How many women had one-person exhibitions at NYC museums last year?” the Guerrilla Girls asked on public posters. Guggenheim: 0; Metropolitan: 0; Modern: 1; Whitney: 0. “How much does a female artist earn in relation to her male counterpart?” One-third of what a man does, as scripted on another visual from the early protest art.

Over the span of two hours, Frida offered a provocatively informative performance  of the “herstory” of the self-described “feminist masked avengers.” Though badmouthed by critics as “a bunch of whiners” and “feminazis,” the Guerrilla Girls have been received by many as hooded do-gooders a la DC Comics’ most famous fictional superheroes, Batman and Superman. Nonetheless, “their weapons of terror….are irony and rhetoric,” as told by a New York tabloid. They are artists and activists seeking to disrupt misguided traditions of discrimination against minorities in the fields of art, film, politics and pop culture.

With the demeanor of a cheekier version of Ms. Frizzle from the children’s “Magic School Bus” series of the ’90s, Frida seamlessly trotted through an array of topics, including a narration of some of the Guerrilla Girls’ international expeditions, a breakdown of the power structures within the modern art museum and a hilariously disturbing account of the early treatments of “hysteria” in women around the world.

Frida’s sampling of dozens of other protest works of art included one of their most prominent works, a Guerrilla Girls Public Service Announcement, titled “The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist.” Working without the pressure of success, not having to be in shows with men, being reassured that whatever kind of art you make it will be labeled feminine, these supposed advantages topped the list, and encouraged the audience to thoughtfully reflect in between involuntary snickers. Another included a “weenie count,” or tally of the ratio of male to female nudes in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Startlingly, less than 5 percent of the artists exhibited in the modern sections of the Met were women while 85 percent of the nudes in this section were female. This prompted the Guerrilla Girls to justifiably ask, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?”

With a simple strategy of coupling humor with the hard facts, Frida—and the Guerrilla Girl army that she represented—began to seem a lot less radical and disillusioned than suggested by critics. Their methods are and have always been based in empirically-derived statistics that have consistently revealed the appalling pervasiveness of inequality in our public arena.

Their “First Lady of New York,” as referred to by Frida, Lorraine O’Grady ’55, sat front and center in the audience. She is a 20th century conceptual and performance artist and a longtime supporter of the Guerrilla Girls. She was asked by DMSAC to accompany Frida in her presentation.

Before welcoming Lorraine O’Grady onto stage for a brief Q&A session, Frida imparted some wisdom on how the audience could engage in everyday activism in their own lives. Slap stickers onto offensive magazines, place hang tags on hangers in clothing stores with details about the conditions in which the clothing was made, slip political messages into museum catalogs and write your critical thoughts on the walls of bathroom stalls.

The closing “talkback” offered an opportunity for the audience to witness the exchanges between two female artists and their off-the-cuff remarks concerning the topics of cross-cultural translations of art, the potential of censorship and the pros and cons of flirting with polarizing stereotypes. Frida’s bold and scholastic performance proved a comprehensive introduction on a genre of art that has the promising potential to hold the leaders of our art world accountable for their complicit roles in the maintenance of disgracefully unjust systems of power and dominance.

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