Rutgers Exhibit Celebrates Guerrilla Girls Crusade against Sexism in the Art World and Society

Rutgers Exhibit Celebrates Guerrilla Girls Crusade against Sexism in the Art World and Society

‘Girls’ use gorilla tactics: -- masks, humor, statistics, and art – to draw attention to disparities

The Guerrilla Girls began in 1985 when a group of women artists plastered a series of posters around Manhattan protesting discrimination against women and minority artists in museums, galleries, and art history books.
Lois Greenfield 1996
A 17-foot banner of an “anatomically correct” Oscar statue is just one piece featured at a Rutgers exhibit celebrating the Guerrilla Girls, provocateurs in gorilla masks who crusade against sexism in the art world and popular culture.

But the Oscar is not the buff golden boy we see on Academy Awards night. He’s a paunchy bald white man with a hairy chest, who shields his “anatomy” with his hands.

“He’s white, he’s male, and he looks just like the guys who win!’’ blares the poster, created in 2002. It also includes sobering statistics from that year: The best director has never been awarded to a woman (until last year, when Kathryn Bigelow won); 94% of the writing awards went to men. And only 3 percent of the acting awards had gone to people of color.

 “The Guerrilla Girls call themselves the conscience of the art world, and that’s absolutely correct,’’ says Martin Rosenberg, a Rutgers-Camden professor and feminist scholar who teaches art history. “Before the 1970s, there was no mention that women had even contributed to the history of art With the feminist revision of art history, to which the Guerrilla Girls have contributed, that has changed, but we still have a long way to go to achieve gender equity in art and in society."

The exhibit, which runs until September 7 at the Mason Gross School of the Arts Galleries, is presented by the Rutgers University Institute for Women and Art.  The institute has played a pivotal role in promoting the work of women artists internationally and ensuring that they are included in art history education.

An example of early Guerrilla Girls art: 'Women in America earn only 2/3 of what men do. Women artists earn only 1/3 of what men artists do.'
“If you go into museums and they only show work by white Western men, one might get the idea that women and people of color aren’t creative, don’t make great art, don’t contribute to the history and culture of society,’’ says Ferris Olin, co-director of the institute. “But art is made by people all over the world, including women.’’

The Guerrilla Girls began in 1985 when a group of women artists plastered a series of posters around New York City protesting discrimination against women and minority artists in museums, galleries, and art history books. One poster pointed out that while women made only two-thirds for every dollar men earned at the time, women artists were paid one-third for every dollar earned by male artists. 

When the media tracked down the Girls and requested interviews, the women wore gorilla masks to conceal their identities and assumed the names of prominent female artists of the past. They succeeded in drawing international attention to inequalities in the art world.

“The idea of using ironic humor, using statistics, and working together collectively, using ‘guerrilla tactics,’ turned out to be a useful one,’’’ says Olin.

 But it does invite some questions, among them, why gorilla masks? 

One of the founding Guerrilla Girls, “Frida Kahlo,’’ answered that question in a phone interview with Rutgers Today.

 “Conditions were so bad that we decided women needed secret organizations to fight for rights,’’ says Kahlo. “One of our members was a really bad speller and when she was taking notes during one of our meetings she wrote “gorilla,’’ instead of “guerrilla.” When we saw that, the clouds parted. It sounded so bizarre in the discretion of the art world to think that there were guerrillas lurking.’’

The Guerrilla Girls are never seen at their events without their masks, which raises another question. Doesn’t it get hot in there?

“Yes, but you get used to it,’’ Kahlo answers with a sigh. “It’s our cross to bear.’’

But the masks are more than a gimmick. They focus attention on the group’s message rather than individual members. As artists, the Girls also feared repercussions for speaking out against the art establishment. “It’s hard to bite the hand that feeds you, even if it doesn’t feed you well enough,’’ says Kahlo.

The group has remained active since it began and has expanded its reach, publishing satirical books and focusing on discrimination in other parts of the world.

Factions of the Guerrilla Girls have also formed the Guerrrilla Girls On Tour, which does plays about women and theatre and Guerrilla Girls Broad Band,  which specializes in online activism. The Rutgers show is one of the first to include work by all three separate, incorporated groups, says Olin. It also features original posters, some of which a former Guerrilla Girl donated to Olin and Institute co-director Judith Brodsky, who placed them with the Rutgers Miriam Shapiro Archive on Women Artists, which will preserve the posters to be used as a resource by art historians and materials for exhibition.

Kahlo says Rutgers is an important venue for the Guerrilla Girls.

“Rutgers has such a long history of feminist scholars. It’s really the perfect place for us to have the show. We were thrilled to do it,’’ she says. The show’s opening also celebrated the five-year anniversary of the institute. 

According to Olin and Rosenberg, the Guerilla’s tactics have helped women artists. Institutions like the Whitney Museum and the Guggenheim have made efforts to feature women and minorities more often--although women’s art work still fetches lower prices at auction than male artists and they are still underrepresented in galleries, says Olin.  

 “They’ve shamed major institutions into doing a little better,’’ says Rosenberg, who included some Guerilla Girls art in his 2007 book, Gender Matters in Art Education co-authored by Frances Thurber. 

The Guerrilla Girls have also inspired a new generation of female artists, says Olin. At the Guerrilla Girls opening this summer, a grandmother, mother, and granddaughters all showed up in gorilla masks. 

“They’ve influenced a lot of younger artists,’’ says Olin. “People know who they are.’’