A Brief History of the Guerrilla Girls: From Catfights to Current Exhibitions

In 1985, an anonymous group of female artists, aka Guerrilla Girls decided, “let’s get in formation” with the mission to fight sexism and racism within the art world. Though the idea to adopt the gorilla as the group’s affronting symbol stemmed from a spelling error at one of the group’s first meetings, their collective “maskulinity” has seen them exhibit in the very institutions they once criticised.

Guerrilla Girls. Dearest Art Collector. 1986.

“We are provocative, but we want to transform, not just to criticize…so we always embarrass institutions” founding member Frida Kahlo says.

However the group has its very own embarrassing history. Their “pissed-off” beginnings had a blurred focus and casted them in the very roles that masculine-minded brutes often fantasized of.

Two founding members, Frida Kahlo and Kathe Kollwitz, became the voice of the group, and a shift in the jungle ensued. The two silverbacks began to camouflage the collective’s message with an authoritarian propagation. The Guerrilla Girls Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art saw the pair claim credit and pocket the earnings.

Guerrilla Girls. Guerrilla Girls Review The Whitney. 1987.

Shortly after, five gorillas were “fired”, two subsequent factions were formed. Kahlo and Kollwitz attempted to trademark the name “Guerrilla Girls”, which lead to a “banana split” as they filed a lawsuit in 2003 against both Guerrilla Girls BroadBand and Guerrilla Girls On Tour! for infringing upon their trademark. Nevertheless, the Guerrilla Girl drama and the flippancy of the two “leaders” with which they discarded their anonymity in the course of the lawsuit, only publicised the embarrassment.

Guerrilla Girls. Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum?. 1989.

Fortunately, a new leaf was turned and the dissemination of the group’s messages and presence continues to grow. Now, the Guerrilla Girls have their first dedicated show in the UK and it’s the Whitechapel Gallery in London that’s the arena for their latest investigation into diversity in the art world.

The girls sent out a questionnaire to over 383 European museums about diversity, and only a 1/4 responded…

“Those transparent enough to respond will be on the wall, and then we have a list of 300 who never responded, who will be on the floor.”

Results indicate that only 14 of the museums that sent a response have more than 20 artists from outside the conservative realm of the Western World in their collections. Only 2 museums have more than 40% women artists in their collections.

Guerrilla Girls Outside Whitechapel Gallery, London.

The Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam has the highest number of gender non-conforming artists in their exhibition program with 78, while Poland trumped other countries with their relatively strong representation of women artists in their museum collections. Incredibly, all but one of the Polish museums that responded also have female directors. As their poster remarks, perhaps it’s better in Poland. Come to the Public House of Art in Amsterdam where more than 70% of women artists exhibited. Keep on wildin’ out and embarrassing those art snobs, Guerrilla Girls!



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