I’m standing in the galleries of the Mason Gross School of the Art Galleries in New Brunswick, talking to a creature with a brown hairy face, a leathery snout and fierce fangs. As she speaks she’s continuously poking a finger into her mouth. She’s not trying to dislodge a food particle stuck between two teeth, but rather clearing the rubber lips of her gorilla mask from her real mouth so that her words will come out clearly.
She is “Minnette De Silva,” the appropriated name taken by one of the Guerrilla Girls, a group of masked avengers started in New York in 1985 to combat the racial and gender inequity in the art world. They wear gorilla masks to retain their anonymity. Between 1985 and 2000, close to 100 women working collectively and anonymously produced posters, billboards, public actions, books and other projects to make feminism funny and fashionable. “Do women have to be naked to get into the Metropolitan Museum?” they asked.
The group is making a resurgence, because the battle is still being waged. !Women Art Revolution, the just-released documentary directed by Lynn Hershman Leeson on the history of the feminist art movement, features the Guerrilla Girls.
“Can you name three female artists? The people asked that question outside the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art can’t get much beyond Frida You-Know-Who-I-Mean,” writes Rachel Saltz in her New York Times review of !W.A.R. The artists interviewed for the film — Adrian Piper, Betye Saar, Nancy Spero, Martha Rosler and Carolee Schneemann – “make you nostalgic for the struggle except, as many point out, the struggle continues.”
The Institute for Women and Art is exhibiting Feminist Masked Avengers: 30 Early Guerrilla Girls’ Posters and Recent Work by Guerrilla Grils Guerrilla Girls BroadBand, Guerrilla Girls on Tour at the Mason Gross School of the Art Galleries, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, through July 18. Curated by Ferris Olin and Judith K. Brodsky, directors of Rugers Institute for Women and Art, it includes posters donated by Liubov Popova, founding member, to the Miriam Schapiro Archives, Rutgers University Libraries.
The exhibit kicked off at the Feminist Fete June 5, celebrating the fifth anniversary of Rutgers Institute for Women and Art and honoring the Guerrillas. At the turn of the millennium, according to program notes, three separate and independent groups formed “to bring fur and feminism to new frontiers.”
Guerrilla Girls continues to use provocative text, visuals and humor in the service of feminism and social change. The group has written several books and creates projects about the art world, film, politics and pop culture. “They travel the world, talking about the issues of their experiences as feminist masked avengers, reinventing the “f” word into the 21st century.”
Guerrilla Girls on Tour! is a collective that develops plays, performances, street theater and residency programs to dramatize women’s history. (At the Feminist Fete, they wore Day-Glo yellow jumpsuits, black eye masks and blond wigs.)
Guerrilla Girls BroadBand – “the Broads” – combat sexism, racism and social injustice through their website and live interactive activist events.
During a performance break at the Feminist Fete I had the chance to catch up with “Minnette De Silva,” a member of Guerrilla Girls BoradBand. The real Minnette De Silva was an internationally recognized architect, considered the pioneer of the modern architectural style in Sri Lanka, who died in1998.
The Guerrilla Girls assume the names of dead women artists, in addition to wearing gorilla masks in public, to conceal their identities and focus on the issues rather than their personalities.
Another Guerrilla Girl I spoke with, “Joyce Wieland” – a Canadian experimental filmmaker and mixed media artist who also died in 1998 – said she’d been invited to join the group six years ago, but beyond that could not be persuaded to say anything about her real persona, only about the relatively unknown artist she seeks to memorialize.
“Minnette” admitted that her own background was in architecture – she’d studied it in school, became an artist, and works with architects – and so selected Ms. De Silva as her persona because she’d seen her buildings in Sri Lanka and remembered her as a mythic figure. “She integrated Modernism with the indigenous vernacular, integrating local artifacts and techniques.
“We take up the persona of under-recognized culture workers so we can promote them and make them appear on the internet and revive their legacy,” continues “Minnette.” “We take someone we feel a connection to. They are very glamorous figures to us.”
Among the tenets of the “Guerrilla Girls Guide to Behaving Badly” (because “nice girls” finish last) proclaimed in a self-described “rant” at the Feminist Fete:
- Be a loser
- Be crazy
- Get people who disagree to laugh at you and you get a hole into their brain to change their mind
- Be anonymous (“You would not believe what comes out of your mouth when you wear a gorilla mask”)
- Be an outsider
- Don’t make only expensive art, make cheap art
- Don’t teach corrupt art history
- Complain, complain, complain – but be creative
- Use the “f” word – even people who believe in the principles of feminism stop short of calling themselves feminists
- Be a great ape – and have fun along the way.
Said one of the guests at the Feminist Fete, “I can see why they were doing this in the 80s, but why now?”
Here’s why – these are some of the messages proclaimed in their enormous banners:
- The anatomically correct Oscar – he’s white and male, just like the guys who win. Best director has never been awarded to a woman; 92.8 percent of the writing awards have gone to men; only 5.5 percent of the acting awards have gone to people of color.
- Horror on the National Mall: Thousands of women are locked in the basements of D.C. museums. At the National Gallery, 98 percent of artists are male, 99.9 percent are white; at the National Portrait Gallery, 93 percent of artists are male, 99 percent are white; at the Hirshhorn, it’s 95 percent and 94 percent, and at the Renwick, 88 percent and 91 percent.
Feminist Masked Avengers: 30 Early Guerrilla Girls’ Posters and Recent Work by Guerrilla Girls, Guerrilla Girls BroadBand, Guerrilla Girls on Tour! is on view at Mason Gross School of the Art Galleries, 33 Livingston Ave., New Brunswich, through July 18. Gallery hours: Tues.-Fri., 10 a.m.-3 p.m. and weekends by appointment. http://iwa.rutgers.edu/home/