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(Katie Booth/Women in the World)

Wild things

Art activists Guerrilla Girls take over the Twin Cities

By Cynthia Allum on January 13, 2016

At the mouth of the Williamsburg Bridge, Frida Kahlo and Käthe Kollwitz peered out from lipsticked gorilla masks. Bikers and pedestrians stopped to snap photos of them but, after more than 30 years of masquerading as monkeys, the women are unfazed by the attention.

Kahlo and Kollwitz, not their real names, are two of the founders of the legendary Guerrilla Girls, an anonymous, multigenerational activist group of female artists. Their unexpected journey began in New York City in 1985, when they pasted up posters to protest art-world discrimination, with subsequent projects engaging with issues of war, homelessness, stereotypes in pop culture, and discrimination in the film industry.

Women in the World spoke with Frida Kahlo by phone and met with Käthe Kollwitz to discuss their forthcoming Twin Cities “takeover,” the issues that activate them and the secret of their longevity.


“It’s about activating Minneapolis towards social action”

A project as expansive as the Guerrilla Girls Twin Cities Takeover is a first for them. Kicking off on January 21, the festival will comprise a series of events by 30 different groups, which will take place until March 6 at more than 20 arts and cultural organizations in and around Minneapolis/St. Paul. A network of local art activists will be mobilized, and the Guerrilla Girls have been working in tandem with the area’s youth groups to prepare. In addition to an installation of several iconic Guerrilla Girls posters at the Walker Art Center, the Minneapolis College of Art and Design will showcase work created by students — in collaboration with the women — that highlight their concerns with homelessness, student debt, income inequality, trans issues, and police brutality. “They really made us think about our work, our language, and some of our issues in a different way… We’re really appreciative, education and learning goes both ways,” said Kahlo.

According to Kollwitz, it’s a “fantastic time for creative activism,” and they enjoy lending their expertise. “Everyone wants to do some good in the world. And we are kind of a model for doing it your own crazy way.”

The takeover will also feature dozens of related exhibitions, panels with the Guerrilla Girls, a projected “intervention” in the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts that critiques its own lack of diversity, and youth-oriented events to encourage activism. Local youth groups were even given vacant storefronts to project their messages.

So why target the Twin Cities? “There’s a big Black Lives Matter movement and there’s a big trans movement there,” said Kollwitz. The Guerrilla Girls were also attracted to its high concentration of liberal people, and the growing Latino community. It also helps that the Walker Art Center was an early Guerrilla Girls champion, and is one of 50 museums worldwide that owns their posters. “Our portfolio tells a story of the art world, start to finish, from 1985 to 2015,” said Kahlo. “We tell another side of the art world, the critical side, and we do it with humor and we try to be very direct and effective.”

“The art world is a microcosm for the larger world”

Throughout the years, the Guerrilla Girls have always focused on whatever issue strikes them, but the art world’s their home base. “We keep coming back to it because we’re trained as artists, we do visual product,” said Kahlo. They believe that everything that is wrong with the world has been wrong with the art world as well, and Kahlo demonstrates by listing parallels. “It’s been about money, income inequality, discrimination… The idea that billionaires are controlling the art market and museums. Even though the museums are trying to write our history, they’re really doing it through the marketplace… And that’s a lousy way to think about it. It’s sort of saying that the most expensive art is somehow the most significant. No one would say that about films or books. So why should the most expensive painting write the art history of our time?”

Kollwitz shares her perspective. “Billionaire art collectors all tend to have the same cookie-cutter collections,” she said. “They all tend to own the same top-tier of super expensive artists, which are usually sold to them by about four top-tier art dealers, and that’s really sad for our culture. Here we have this incredible populist explosion, in terms of social media and out on the streets, and it’s going to be a shame if none of that gets preserved for the future. It’s only these top ten artists of every generation.”

Kahlo believes we should be less obsessed with the prices of pieces at auction and more with content, and suggests that people look past museums and galleries as sources of art and support street art as well. “We have to start questioning whether our conventional institutions that present art to us are really painting a picture of who we are,” she reasoned.

Although museums may now realize that they can’t have a complete collection or survey show without women and artists of color, the Guerrilla Girls are wary of tokenism, when institutions will show one minority artist as a shortcut to remain diverse. Pay attention to museums’ collecting patterns and their solo shows, which is what really helps artists, and it’s clear that women and artists of color fall off the charts. “Racism and sexism can be coded… That glass ceiling affects everything because if your work is not supported, you don’t have the resources to make more,” said Kahlo. “Most of the big opportunities, most of the big money go to white men, and it’s still that way. We can’t be ignored any longer, but we’re not empowered yet.”

“If you don’t evolve, you get stuck”

The secret to the Guerrilla Girls’ three-decade success appears to be adaptation. They have always been open to learning about new issues, and they were in the vanguard of art activism when they began. When they launched in 1985, they were told that their work wasn’t art, it was politics. “At that point, very few artists were doing what we were doing,” said Kahlo. “It was a time when everyone thought art was something you hung on the wall and you made with paint.”

They’re hopeful for the future of art activism now that students are being taught that about art’s political history. “Artists are now thinking beyond making a fortune, they’re thinking about using their creative abilities to make change in the world,” said Kahlo.

Critique is a colossal part of the Guerrilla Girls’ work. “I would be afraid of the time when it isn’t necessary to be critical,” she added. “Never take no for an answer, and make the art world that you want to live in. Don’t accept the art world that exists.”

Beyond the art world, the duo feels more attention must be paid to trans issues, income inequality, police brutality, the environment, and what Kahlo calls, “this idea of constant and continual war.”

St. Catherine University (Rebecca Studios)
Attendees at a Guerrilla Girls presentation at St. Catherine University wear masks that were distributed to the audience. (Rebecca Studios)

“Complain, complain, complain, complain”

The Guerrilla Girls are the orphaned caped crusaders who are now, ironically, considered to be art world royalty, but that hasn’t stopped them from criticizing the ruling oligarchy. “We need to investigate all of the tax advantages of museums, see how much they benefit from tax dollars, and demand that they be representative,” said Kahlo. (Meanwhile, campaigns and policy changes in Europe are trying to make their museums more representative.) They’re agitated by the “corporatization” of museums, questionable labor practices, and the significant income inequality that can occur between directors, curators, guards, and the maintenance staff. Museums, they believe, should institute a code of ethics whereby it’s unethical for an art collector to be a trustee due to conflicts of interest. “Also, if you look at the directorship at museums, very white, very male,” said Kahlo. “But if you go down one rank, to curators, almost entirely female. So something happens to women and people of color within the curatorial structure. They rarely get beyond that.”

So which museums are the culprits? “The Museum of Modern Art would be a great place to start,” said Kahlo. She also mentions the National Gallery, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Guggenheim, The Art Institute of Chicago, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. You’re encouraged to count the number of women artists and the number of female nudes on display in an exhibition, which the Guerrilla Girls are famous for doing. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much change since they started counting. “In New York, we have more naked men now, but, you know, is that progress?”

“Embrace the concept of feminism”

“When you have a world in which millions of people have no human rights at all, where women often are the property of some male in their lives, there’s always going to be a lot to do,” said Kollwitz. Although many people have been opting for the word “humanism” instead of “feminism,” Kahlo believes it’s important to embrace the term for its history, instead of dropping it for its stereotypes. “It’s the struggle for equal rights for men and women and everyone in between those binaries. That’s the work, to make the umbrella larger, rather than to create a new umbrella.”

“You don’t need us to do activism”

Humor has been an important tool for the activists to get their message across barriers. “If you can make someone who disagrees with you laugh at something, you have a little hook inside their brain,” said Kahlo. Although angry activism is effective at rallying the troops, appealing to someone is transformative. “All the stuff we were making fun of has been taken seriously,” said Kahlo. Their work has also gained traction internationally and next year they have a range of projects planned in Europe, including shows in Paris, London, and Cologne, and an installation at the Tate Modern of their portfolio of posters.

Their masks may be funny, but they’re also the armor that allows them to be outspoken. If you want to wear one yourself and join the Guerrilla Girls, the good news is that they’re always taking new members. The bad news is that their admissions process is one of their many secrets. They warn that you wouldn’t want to work for them anyway, and that they’re too bossy. Kahlo said, “If you want to do activism, form your own crazy group. The world needs more feminist masked avengers than just the Guerrilla Girls.”