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Guerrilla Girls
Photo by Gene Pittman, courtesy of the Walker Art Center

Guerrilla Girls: giving the art world hell since 85’

We tap the infamous feminist art collective for their thoughts on Oscar nominations, all-girl art shows and feminism as a buzz word

The Guerrilla Girls, a masked, all-female art activist group, have been stirring up trouble since 1985, when they were brought together by anger at the imbalance of equal opportunities in the art world. Their first step was plastering New York with two posters – “‘What Do These Artists Have in Common?’ ‘They Allow Their Work To Be Shown in Galleries That Show No More Than 10% Women Artists Or None At All.’” and “‘These Galleries Show No More Than 10% Women Artists Or None At All.’” – publicly naming and shaming artists and galleries who the group saw as ‘culprits’ for not speaking out for female equality. They have since expanded their focus and methods of protest to racial and LGBT inequalities through their work with installations, billboard campaigns and work with Amnesty International. 30 years on and it seems things haven’t really progressed: until 2015, some of the world’s most well-known museums, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Guggenheim and Whitney, had only curated one female solo exhibition each. While that figure may have risen (by one) since 1985, it’s still not enough. For these reasons, 30 years after the Guerrilla Girls was founded to fight sexism and racism, they are far from retirement.

Last week, they launched their biggest ever project – the Twin Cities Takeover in Minneapolis/St. Paul – a collation of street, museum and gallery events, including 30 exhibitions, showcasing both the Guerrilla Girls’ work and that of other artists, like Andrea Carlson and Elizabeth Day, as well as local students. The project kicked off with exhibitions at the Walker Art Center – showing a huge installation of the group’s art, ranging from 1985 to 2015, and the Minneapolis Institute of Art – who asked the activist group to critique the museum's art collection. They also installed a giant projected video, titled “Mysteries of the MIA”, that analyses the curated art and critiques the fact that of the 90,000 artworks in the museum, only 49 are by African-American artists. The Takeover will culminate in March, with an hour-and-a-half long ‘show and tell’ of their work, hosted by the Guerrilla Girls themselves.

Their fight will also be brought to London, first in June, when they will exhibit at the Tate Modern, then in September, when they will hold an intervention in Whitechapel – ending in the autumn, when they will take a week-long activist residency at the Tate Modern.

In the midst of the Takeover, we caught up with two of the founding members, Frida Kahlo and Kathe Kollwitz (their pseudonyms are all part of keeping the group’s anonymity) to gauge the ever-vocal activists’ thoughts on some of the biggest talking points of today – like the Oscars, the rise of all-female art shows and why women and nudity seem to go hand-in-hand.

Feminism seemed to be the buzzword of 2015. There was and has also been a noticeable rise in female-only exhibitions. How do you feel about that?

Kathe Kollwitz: Are you talking about these sudden women's shows in fancy galleries? Well, better late than never...

Frida Kahlo: Feminism is around 150-years-old, maybe even older, and for the art world to tap into it right now, they're a little behind actually. It's not Avant-garde but ‘Derrière-garde’ for them to discover it now. I think the question is ‘will it stick around’? It's curious to call a show of women's work a ‘feminist show’ – feminism is the desire for equal rights for all people, so do male shows have a word to call them by, I wonder?

Why do you think they're doing this now? Do they actually want to equalise this imbalance or has it just become a trend?

Kathe Kollwitz: They probably are doing it cause it's become a trend, but also inside galleries and museums there are people who completely believe in these issues and it's usually difficult for them to operate within those systems, but now they're slowly making gains as well.

Frida Kahlo: I think it remains to be seen. Maybe you should ask them why they're doing it – they have the secret!

Your 1989 poster ‘Do Women have to be naked to get into the Metropolitan Museum?’ questioned the use of female nudity. A lot of female created art work seems to include nudity – what’s your take on this form of ‘self-expression’ 27 years after you made that poster?

Kathe Kollwitz: I think artists have always worked with nudity. Obviously artists have to do the work they want to do and need to do, so we would never interfere with the actual work being done by any artist.

Frida Kahlo: Well I wonder, that there's more female nudity than male nudity – if that doesn't, in a way, reflect the larger culture's attitude towards the female body. It would be really interesting to do a poster ‘Do women artists have to be naked to get into the art world?’.

In 2002 you made the ‘Anatomically Correct Oscar’ poster but now, 14-years-later, we’re still in a similar place with the most recent furore over this year’s lack of diversity within the nomination categories.

Kathe Kollwitz: Yes, 2016 – same old, same old. The whole history of the Oscars is that they have been ignoring the contributions of people of colour, and this year it’s terrible, as always, and worse in a lot of ways. We are going to update that ‘Anatomically Correct Oscar’ poster – because isn't that guy the perfect symbol of the problems that everyone is pissed off about in terms of film right now? We've got to put him back on the streets, so we're going to get that together for the Oscars in LA.

Frida Kahlo: It's kind of prophetic isn't it?

A lot of women use humour to address female issues, why do you use humour as a tool to get your message out there – do you think that’s the only way to address these issues?

Kathe Kollwitz: There are so many ways to address issues and it's the golden age of activism: there's so many creative strategies, so many people are getting a message out and there's so much to fight against – there are new issues all the time and old ones too! We use humour partly because we're a bunch of funny people and because we realised immediately that humour helps us to develop this game changing strategy. We twist an issue around, present it differently with an outrageous headline, a great visual and back it up with facts. Humour really helps us get into people's brains and lets them see things another way and maybe, just maybe, change their minds.

How can the ‘everyday’ woman join the fight?

Frida Kahlo: Identify some like-minded friends, think up some crazy identity that will get some attention and then figure some ways to get out to the public your ideas or views of the injustices that you would like to see corrected!

Do you have a mission statement for 2016?

Kathe Kollwitz: Make more trouble – that's our mantra!