What Gorillas and Face Masks Have To Do with the Art World
by Gemma Brand-Wolf
While gorillas, known for their presence in the jungles and forests of the world, have next to nothing in common with guerrillas, the Guerrilla Girls prove that this belief may be misguided in the most infinitesimal way. The scientific name for the gorilla is Gorilla gorilla gorilla, and the Guerrilla Girls’ work, that of highlighting the bias of censorship and female representation, requires tireless perseverance (much like this repetitive title); in other words, the scientific name of the gorilla is a perfect metaphor for how each individual and tenacious action of the Guerilla Girls comes together to create an image magnificent and resplendent defiance.
Chipping away the coats of paint that have been applied after decades of prejudice in the art world, the Guerrilla Girls are a group of feminist activist artists who work to reveal the discrimination reflected in politics, art, film, and pop culture. To maintain anonymity, they wear gorilla masks in public and “use facts, humor and outrageous visuals to expose gender and ethnic bias as well as corruption in politics, art, film, and pop culture.” Members of the Guerrilla Girls use pseudonyms, adopting the names of famous feminist artists like Frida Kahlo or Käthe Kollwitz, each alias in remembrance of a dead woman who represented unprecedented strength in the art world.
While anonymity can sometimes be a dangerous thing (many take advantage of their ability to renounce responsibility), the Guerrilla Girls use it to direct attention away from the intoxicating magnetism of the name game. Instead of influencing people based simply on who, the Guerrilla Girls have become powerful based on what, why, and how. The Guerrilla Girls have used their influence to undermine the mainstream, to defy our history of discrimination and prejudice in art. Traveling around the world to hold exhibitions in universities and museums, the Guerrilla Girls use art to point out inequality and pose questions about the future of the art.
One of these campaigns questions the systematically ingrained sexism found in museum exhibitions. “Do women have to be naked to get into ___?,” they ask, offering not only statistics to illustrate their point, but prompting viewers to think critically about this blatant sexism. As the Guerrilla Girls have shown, so many things can fill that ominous “___”. The fillers of this space have ranged from “museums” to “music videos,” and the changing insertions carry the weight of the countless institutions in our society that are riddled with sexism.
Through aesthetically dynamic and captivating merchandise, billboards, campaigns, and exhibitions, the Guerrilla Girls use the cultural impact of art to impact art itself. When faced with the seemingly endless discrimination and bias expressed in the art world, it is difficult to forget that art is a reflection of society, and that our society has a discouragingly long way to go. However, the Guerrilla Girls argue that art can also be used to shape society, to project a positive image of the future or to highlight the inequalities of the past and present in order to spur change. The Guerrilla Girls remind me that the past, ingrained with prejudice, intolerance, and closed-mindedness, is documented through art and facts, and that, since this is the case, we have the power to shape our own historical footprint. The Guerrilla Girls remind me that, using simply art and facts, we have the power to create our own artifacts.