Guerrilla Girls – The Art Activists!

Oprah Winfrey once said, “I was raised to believe that ‘excellence’ is the best deterrent to racism or sexism, and that is how I operate my life.” 

Guerilla Girls is an art group that was founded by a group of women artists devoted to fighting sexism and racism within the art world. In 1985 the Museum of Modern Art in New York held an art exhibition titled as “An International Survey of Painting and Sculpture” that claimed to show all the significant art that was prevalent at that time, but it did not.  

The Guerrilla Girls

Of the 169 artists participated, only thirteen were women, and there were zero non-white artists. The Guerrilla Girls were sensibly not happy about this, as lots of women and non-white artists were making impressive and thrilling art. So they commenced writing protest posters and sticking them up on the roads of New York around the museum. Guerilla Girls wear disguises, use phoney names, put their work in places they shouldn’t, and meddle posh art events. They conceal their identities by calling themselves the names of great lady artists such as Käthe Kollwitz and Frida Kahlo, and by wearing masks when fighting or fly-posting their posters. They were initially going to wear ski masks to cover their faces but when one of their gang randomly spelt guerrilla wrong and drafted gorilla, they believed it would be funny to wear gorilla masks instead, and that turned out pretty cool. 

Since the beginning, they marked themselves as the “Conscience of the art world” and their ventures as “public service messages.” Their sobriquet, a “women artists’ terrorist organization,” soon slipped by the wayside, perhaps in answer to sympathetic commentators who pointed out that “it’s become post-punk cute to be a terrorist… The Reagan administration already calls us that, and it lets state terrorists off the hook to be coy about it.” The Guerrilla Girls have, however, chosen in a benign form some guerrilla tactics: strictly anonymous membership, undisclosed numbers, secret tactics, and public service “actions” played out in the roads in gorilla drag. As an outcome of their attention-getting street theatre technique, these girls have become seriously visible in the New York City and national art press. New York Magazine, always on the lookout for trendsetters in the year of 1987 witnessed them as one of the four powers-that-be in the art society. Major recognition came from the National Organization for Women, which presented them with the Susan B. Anthony Award in 1987. Three and a half years later, they continued their covert street movements, but now they are also invited orators at art academies, conferences, and colleges and are guest curators. They even coordinated a retrospective exposition of their posters at various places. Many of the exhibiting artists have been highlighted in past issues of Feminist Studies, including Nancy Holt, Mary Beth Edelson, Bonnie Sherk, Joan Semmel, Louise Bourgeois and Donna Henes. In 1986, the news began to spread outside of New York City. In February, the College Art Association called the Guerrilla Girls to take part in the “Anger Panel” at their national convention happening in New York City. Nattily dressed in black leather jackets and monkey masks and distributing buttons proclaiming “I am a Guerrilla Girl”, the women played a tape in which they claimed not to be angry at all: 

“I’m a guerrilla girl and I’m not at all incensed that the museum of modern art showed only 13 women of the 169 artists in their international survey of painting and sculpture show or that the Carnegie international had only four out of 42. I know these figures occurred only by chance. There was no sexism, conscious or unconscious, at work. I’m a guerrilla girl and I think that the art world is perfect and I would never think of complaining about any of the wonderful people in it. After all, women artists make fully one whole third of what male artists make, so what’s there to be mad about? I mean, it is not nice to get angry. I wouldn’t dream of getting angry. Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy day to listen to this.” 

The artists and art historians in the audience gave the Guerrilla Girls a standing ovation, and in the following months, their public service messages began to reach a broader audience via national publications, the grapevine, and college art history and studio classes, as well as public lectures taught by second-tier Guerrilla Girls.

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This was the first Guerrilla Girls poster, which first appeared in the streets of New York City in April 1985. The artists listed here-all male-are mostly North American, and although they represent several generations of contemporary artists, they are all well-established “name brands.” The Guerrilla Girls’ implicit argument is that they are in a strong enough position to influence, should they wish to, decisions taken by their galleries.

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This poster reports on a selected group of New York City art galleries, all of them dedicated to contemporary, primarily American, artists. All have pretensions to be trendsetters. Note that eight of the seventeen are directed by women; it is a truism of the art world that women gallery owners and directors have not distinguished themselves in their support of women artists. 

According to Josephine Withers, a researcher of art history in Columbia University, the power of the art marketplace to set its own rules doesn’t discourage the Guerrilla Girls and in fact seems to energize them. When questioned on their current and future plans, the Guerrilla Girls give every indication of being a growing organization with ambitious plans. They plan to launch a lobbying effort to challenge public institutions in an even more direct way than the posters, and there is talk of establishing a legal department. And the posters -they will keep up the pressure with their public service bulletins. But even though they appear willing and able to play hardball, the Guerrilla Girls maintain a healthy dose of the idealism that spawned the feminist art movement of the seventies. In their ideal scenario, more women and minorities will be represented: 

“If art really is a reflection of human experience, we hope that our cultural institutions will begin to reflect the breadth of that experience.”

K K Akshaya

SY B.Sc Economics


  1. How and Why Did the Guerrilla Girls Alter the Art World Establishment in New York City, 1985-1995?
  2. Clipped From ‘The Anniston Star’
  3. Prezi, Published with reusable license by Elle B
  4. Review: All Representation Is Political: Feminist Art Past and Present

Reviewed Works: Global Feminisms: New Directions in Contemporary Art; Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution; Claiming Space: Some American Feminist Originators

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