Interviews

On Negotiating Conflict and Privilege: An Interview with the Guerrilla Girls

Guerrilla Girls, "What Do These Artists Have In Common?" (1985)
Guerrilla Girls, “What Do These Artists Have In Common?” (1985) (all photos courtesy the artists unless otherwise noted)

MINNEAPOLIS — After 30 years, the Guerrilla Girls show no signs of slowing down. Started in 1985 as an anonymous group of women artists challenging discrimination — aka the status quo — in art museums and galleries, the feminist masked avengers are still going strong; they’re even now embraced by the very institutions they’ve sought to criticize.

The GGs’ takeover of Minneapolis, for instance, which officially kicks off in January but has already started with youth workshops and engagement events, involves some of the largest arts institutions in Minnesota. The Walker Art Center, which has acquired the group’s entire collection of posters, in numbered prints, will be showing a selection of the work, while Mia will host an intervention called “ReMix,” wherein the artists plan to paper the museum with posters commenting on the collection. The Minneapolis College of Art and Design, meanwhile, will present student work created in collaboration with the GGs, as well as a group exhibition organized by the Minnesota Women’s Caucus for Art, and the Hennepin Theatre Trust will spearhead a public art project the GGs are planning for downtown Minneapolis.

We sat down with founding members Käthe Kollwitz and Frida Kahlo (their pseudonyms, of course) to assess the Guerrilla Girls’ accomplishments and what challenges they still face as a group. Here’s what they had to say.

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Guerrilla Girls Käthe Kollwitz and Frida Kahlo (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Guerrilla Girls Käthe Kollwitz and Frida Kahlo (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Sheila Regan: What do you feel the Guerrilla Girls have accomplished in 30 years?

Käthe Kollwitz: Boy, that’s hard for us to say — it might be easier for someone else to say, but I think what we have managed to do is take on one thing after another. We’ve never been systematic, we just try to do something that might change people’s minds, that might be unforgettable. There’s always a new idea. There’s always so many issues and so many challenges.

Frida Kahlo: We’ve made it OK to count, we’ve made it OK to question the art establishment and ask: Is it a meritocracy, or are there all kinds of other values at work out there? And is the art that they show us really the record of who we are? That’s an ongoing argument. When we first started 30 years ago, there were galleries and curators who actually made the statement that women and artists of color were not making art that was part of the dialogue, but no one is stupid enough to say that now. They would really say that then. And I feel that a lot of our work in part has helped change that atmosphere.

SR: Are there issues that you’ve let go of, or have you changed your minds about certain issues?

KK: Not changed our mind, but there’s so many things we haven’t done enough on or haven’t done anything on.

SR: Like what?

KK: Oh god, there’s just so many. From the very beginning, we expanded very quickly beyond the art world. We were a bunch of artists who saw how bad things had gotten for people of color and women in the art world, so very quickly we expanded to the culture at large — we did stuff about politics, war, film, reproduction rights …

FK: Stereotypes, history.

KK: All sorts of things. But god, there’s just so much else to do, and a lot of times we’ll try to work on a new issue and not find something we think is convincing enough, and we just don’t put it out there. So we have a reserve of stuff that might be figured out eventually.

Guerrilla Girls, "Even Michele Bachmann Believes 'We All Have The Same Civil Rights'" (2012), a poster made by the group when Minnesota was debating marriage equality. (all photos courtesy the artists unless otherwise noted)
Guerrilla Girls, “Even Michele Bachmann Believes ‘We All Have The Same Civil Rights'” (2012), a poster made by the group when Minnesota was debating marriage equality.

FK: But I think another answer to your question is that the situation of women and artists of color in 1985 was a little different than it is now. The issues of exclusion morph, so at that time, it was really thought that there was a standard to which women and artists of color could not rise. Well, that’s out of the question now. Then there was an era of tokenism, where institutions were showing one woman and one artist of color and thinking ‘oh, the issue is taken care of.’ I mean, the National Gallery is a perfect example. We all know now that tokenism is an extension of the idea of exclusion rather than a solution to it. And we had no idea that that would occur.

Then there’s the glass ceiling. There’s a tremendous glass ceiling that diverse artists are not allowed to go beyond, and right now, it’s about income inequality. If you look, that what’s really fueling American museums — it’s the art market. And if you look at the art market, that’s all about white men exchanging money between themselves and creating a certain kind of cultural value, and we’re asking the question: If museums fall into that system of collecting the most expensive art and being all about the art market, is that really telling the story of production of our culture? I don’t think so, because if you look at that, billionaire art collectors are running the show, and they are a very homogenous group. They are far more homogeneous than artists are.

SR: How do you negotiate or take stock of your own privilege when you remain anonymous?

KK: That’s why we hide behind these masks! [laughter] No, this is something you have to face every day. We hear that all the time from everyone, and we feel it ourselves. We’re in this bizarre position where, 30 years ago we decided to be anonymous, originally because we thought it would hurt our careers. The art world was this clubby place, everybody knew each other. We’re going to speaking about something that nobody wants to hear, and it’s going to hurt us. That turned out not to be the great reason to be anonymous. The great reason was simply because the art world was such a small world, no one could discount what we said — because they knew us, they knew individual members of the group. And it also kept the focus — we couldn’t succeed at it personally, [but] the Guerrilla Girls can succeed. So we can’t talk about our own individual privilege, but we have been a diverse group over all these years. Fifty-five women have been in the group, some for decades, some for a few days, everything in between, and we’ve been diverse in every way you can imagine.

FK: I don’t think you can assume that we have so much privilege. I don’t think that’s … that’s a hard conclusion to come to.

Guerrilla Girls, "We Sell White Bread" (1987) (all photos courtesy the artists unless otherwise noted)
Guerrilla Girls, “We Sell White Bread” (1987)

SR: Well, I can see that you’re both not people of color, so you have that. I mean you two, right?

KK: Yeah, I mean, I don’t think we need to — we can’t say who we are …

FK: And we’re only two people.

KK: We’re asking you to take our word for it that our group is composed of a lot of different people. We’re only two of them. And we are two of the founders, so we certainly would never deny that, but yeah, we’re asking for some trust and some faith, and there’s no reason why you have to do that, but it would be great if you did.

FK: And you know something, our group is more diverse than this room. [There are six white people in the room.] We just happen to be the representatives who are here now.

SR: How do you find time to do your own personal work outside of the Guerrilla Girls?

FK: Oh, between 2 am and 4 am. Everyone needs something to do, right?

KK: That’s a great question. We’ve had many members of the Guerrilla Girls who have taken a break or left the group entirely because it does get hard when you’re doing this work to focus on your own work, and we are … almost every single one of us is an artist, and we may be committed to our own work as well. But honestly, doing this work is the greatest thing in the world and makes your own promotion of yourself pale by comparison, even though many of us have been successful.

SR: Are the Guerrilla Girls a collective? How do you negotiate conflict when it arises?

KK: Well, we’ve had every kind of conflict; we’ve been around a long time. There’s been every kind of thing you could imagine happen to our group. And sometimes people are better at it than others, but basically you have to agree to disagree. I think it’s important to understand that we’ve never been a huge group at any one time. You can’t do the kind of work we do — posters, books, billboards — there’s no way you can do that with 50 people. You’d never get them to agree. But with a smaller cell — we’ve always been a bit more of a cell — if somebody really hates something, occasionally they are able to blackball it but more often than not there’s a consensus.

FK: It’s fluid; it’s not like we have a constitution, or even a mission statement. It’s very fluid and it changes, and people come in, they go out, they come back. Some stay for months, some stay for years, some can’t even bare to be around for a single meeting.

SR: How many original members are there still in the Guerrilla Girls, and how does one become a Guerrilla Girl?

KK: Well, first of all, “original” is a hard term for us, because there was the initial meeting, and then at the next meeting there were different people — you know, some same, some different. So we have lots of members and former members. Frida and I are two of the founders, and we have been involved in pretty much everything the group has done from then until now, working with many other people as well. As for how to become a Guerrilla Girl, that’s the bad news. Because we function as “an artist,” and we are a small group at any one time, it’s pretty hard to become a Guerrilla Girl. When the numbers get too low, people get invited in, and that’s kind of the way it works.

Guerrilla Girls, "Do Women have to be Naked to Get Into the Met Museum?" (1989)
Guerrilla Girls, “Do Women have to be Naked to Get Into the Met Museum?” (1989)

FK: It’s really hard, in a way, to entertain everyone who wants to be a Guerrilla Girl. We would spend all our time interviewing people. It’s just impossible. On the other hand, any one who wants to be a Guerrilla Girl could do what we do on their own. They don’t really need us. They could use us as a model; they could form their own group. It would be a scarier — no, it would be a more powerful statement if the world had more feminist masked avenger groups than just the Guerrilla Girls. We don’t believe in being monolithic.

SR: Why guerrillas?

FK: Guerrillas or gorillas?

SR: Both.

FK: Well, we started out as guerrillas — freedom fighters — because the art world in 1985 was such a — and it still is, it’s even more so — fancy upper-middle-class kind of place with all kinds of country club behavior. We wanted to be freedom fighters in that fancy world. We wanted to scare people, so that at any opening or cocktail party, maybe there was somebody watching them, and so we were guerrillas. “Girls” because we wanted to take back that name for women, and we needed a disguise when we started to get requests from the press to interview us and to photograph us. So the story goes that at one of the early meetings we were tossing around this idea — should we wear a ski mask, what should we do?

KK: We did wear ski masks for a while.

FK: One of our early members was a really bad speller, and she misspelled “guerrilla as “gorilla.” And all of a sudden it was like, wow, that’s an easy solution. So we became guerrillas with gorilla masks.

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