Talking About the ‘F-Word’: Guerrilla Girls Discuss Feminism and Art at Smith

Photo by Tyra wu ‘19| The members of the Guerilla Girls, all of whom remain anonymous, spoke last week about sexism in the art world.

Photo by Tyra Wu’‘19| The members of the Guerrilla Girls, all of whom remain anonymous, spoke last week about sexism in the art world.

Laura Green ’18
Contributing Writer

On Oct. 29 I was almost hit in the head with a banana. Two women dressed in black and wearing gorilla masks traipsed down Sweeney Concert Hall’s aisles, launching bananas into the crowd. I felt as if I was being initiated into a secret society. It was an eventful start to an exciting evening with the Guerrilla Girls, an unconventional group of female art activists who have been active since 1985.

The talk was originally proposed by Kate Scrimshaw-Hall ’16, president of the student organization, Feminists of Smith Unite. In her introduction to the crowd, Scrimshaw-Hall said that as an artist and a feminist, she feels that women are “thrown into the thick of it” when they enter the art world. She asked, “Why not more women?” She could find no satisfactory answer.

The event was a collaboration between Feminists of Smith Unite and the Smith College Museum of Art (SCMA). The current exhibition at SCMA, “Women’s Work: Feminist Art from the Collection,” displays several posters by the Guerrilla Girls. The museum also offered a workshop featuring the two members of the Guerrilla Girls on how to “Aestheticize Your Activism.”

The Guerrilla Girls derived their name from their guerrilla protest tactics and use their gorilla masks as a pun on their name. They began by plastering the streets of New York City with posters highlighting the grim statistics about women’s representation in the art world. The most iconic one reads “Do Women Have to Be Naked to Get Into the Met. Museum?” and reveals the drastic disparity between the number of modern female nudes depicted and the number of female artists exhibited through startling statistics. They’ve continued with the use of cheap forms of media, continuing to use posters and adding books, billboards and social media to their repertoire.

Just like their projects, the talk touched on many aspects of deeply ingrained misogyny in society, spanning from the lack of diversity in Hollywood directors to sexist historical figures to the invention of the vibrator. The Guerilla Girls exposed the corruption of the art market and the self-interest inherent to the current system. Frida Kahlo, the pseudonym of the group’s leader, told the audience, “Don’t just assume that what’s in the museums is what’s good art.” Elaborating on this point, she said that if women, trans people, people of color, etc., are not represented, museums are “just a history of power.”

The women of this vigilante group have become iconic figures in the art world. As a result, they’re now in the position of exhibiting their work in the very museums they’re criticizing, including the Whitney Museum of American Art. The Whitney only increased its number of one-person female exhibits from zero in 1985 to one in 2015. The Guerilla Girls used these ironic opportunities to share their social justice art with as many people as possible, travelling around the world and bringing their cause to the people on the inside.

The Guerrilla Girls had some words of advice for the audience, which included faculty, SCMA members, students and the public. They encouraged the use of the F-word – feminism –   lamenting the fact that to this day, “people who believe in the tenets of feminism are still afraid to use the word.” They also revealed a key to their success: humor. The Guerilla Girls believe that humor gives you “a hook into someone’s mind,” and that’s how you begin to change the system.

When asked how one could become a Guerrilla Girl, Kahlo advised, “Go form your own secret feminist group!” Anyone interested in joining me?

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