Going ape for art

Feminism, always slippery, seems to get more complicated over time. In the 1960s and ‘70s, women burned their bras and left their kitchens for corporate boardrooms. Today, smart young career women approach gender stereotypes by quitting their jobs to be stay-at-home moms. And, since art follows life, some female artists remain in the safe, sociably-acceptable role of hobbyist while others rail against their own insecurities and societal expectations to push the boundaries of what it means to be a woman artist.

Not just monkeying around: The Guerrilla Girls offer serious advice to women artists.

It’s the latter group that, since the mid-‘80s, has received support and inspiration from some anonymous, over-sized apes.

Frida Kahlo, a pseudonymed founding member of that group, the Guerrilla Girls, remembers this: “We had no particular agenda when we started; we were just angry.”

What set them off? In 1985, New York City’s Museum of Modern Art opened the exhibition An International Survey of Painting and Sculpture, purported to include the most significant contemporary art in the world. But of the 169 artists represented, just more than a dozen were women. So, a group of disenchanted female artists banded together and compiled a list of which museums hadn’t displayed a retrospective exhibition for women, which critics never wrote about art by women or people of color, and which galleries only showed work by white males. Armed with these facts, they created posters and stickers and began, disguised as gorillas, to plaster them all over New York. “Our intent,” Kahlo recalls, “was to raise awareness, to be annoying and to embarrass, shame and ridicule the system that excluded any one who was not white and male.”

At first, those institutions ignored the guerrilla gorillas, hoping they’d go away. They didn’t. The Girls now enjoy an international reputation—they’ve staged actions all over Europe, the Far East and Australia. Their posters and stickers address not only art issues, but also war, homelessness and women’s rights.

The Guerrilla Girls name “The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist” as their all-time favorite poster. A woman artist, the poster claims, can “work without the pressure of success, doesn’t have to be in shows with men, knows that her career might pick up when she’s eighty, and will never have to undergo the embarrassment of being called a genius.” Another favorite features the famous Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres painting, “Le Grande Odalisque,” with an angry gorilla head looking over the nude model’s shoulder. The caption reads, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?”

Two decades into the Guerrilla Girls’ history, changes are afoot. The Internet allows the Girls to easily spread the word about inequities and ask all the women who look at their site to participate in their activities. As for the art world’s impression of the activist group, that, too is evolving. As Kahlo point out, “Some of the institutions we have confronted now pay us to come lecture.”

[Connie Bostic is an Asheville-based painter and writer.]


who: The Guerrilla Girls
when: To purchase tickets for the Monday, March 31 performance at Asheville Community Theatre, call 828.254.1320 or go to www.ashevilletheater.org and click on the ‘buy tickets now’ button to reserve your seat.
To register for the Tuesday, April 1 workshop at the Asheville Art Museum, please contact Nancy Sokolove at the Asheville Art Museum, 828.253.3227, ext. 120.

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