Masked, feminist avengers expose world injustices

By MOLLY YOUNG | October 31, 2014

Two members of the anonymous, gorilla-masked Guerrilla Girls lectured at the Baltimore School for the Arts on Thursday, Oct. 23, discussing their group’s mission to expose sexism and racism in the art world.

Organized by The Contemporary, Baltimore’s nomadic contem- porary art museum, the 2014 speaker series titled “CoHosts” presented this event. This series allows 13 galleries around the Baltimore area to hand pick each visiting lecturer and answer the unifying question: “Who is the one artist or art professional that you want The Contemporary to bring to Baltimore?” Area 405 gallery, located in Station North, chose to sponsor the Guerrilla Girls.

After a reverent introduction from Stewart Watson, the director of Area 405, the Girls walked down the aisles of the packed auditorium, handing out bananas to bashful audience members. This entrance set the tone for the rest of the evening.

Since 1985, the Guerilla Girls have been using provocative humor in their visuals and speeches in order to become “the conscience of the art world,” as they put it. To remain anonymous, each member takes on the name of a deceased female artist; Frida Kahlo and Zubeida Agha served as the voices of the group for the evening.

The Girls opened their discussion with a selection of blatantly sexist quotes from Pythagoras, Martin Luther, French artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir and other regarded scholars. The Girls then delivered an engaging presentation of their various satiric materials: posters, billboards, books, etc.

With previous shows in Greece, Mexico City and Shanghai, it’s clear that the Guerilla Girls have taken the world by storm in the almost 30 years since their conception. In 2005, they were asked to do a major installation at the Venice Biennale, a major contemporary art exhibition that takes place once every two years.

Kahlo and Agha explained that the offer elicited a certain degree of surprise from the group. After all, the Biennale’s dearth in female artists and artists of color made them one of the Guerilla Girls’s major targets for years. After some deliberation, the Girls decided to embrace the opportunity for more exposition.

“It’s a thrill to criticize art institutions right on their own walls,” said Agha.

Two years later, The Washington Post asked the Guerrilla Girls to create their own spread. Needless to say, the Girls delivered, this time putting their own spin on the classic tabloid magazine. Their headline read: “Horror on the National Mall! Thousands of women locked in the basements of D.C. museums! Why does macho art world keep female artists out of sight?” Underneath, a startling statistic showed that of all the artists shown in the National Gallery of Art, 98 percent were male and 99.9 percent were white.

Following a mixture of gasps and laughter from the audience (a common occurrence throughout the evening), Kahlo and Agha presented three final examples of their rhetoric. Kahlo began with an attack on the white-male-aristocratic control of the art trade, which, as she pointed out, is the fourth-largest underground market worldwide, trailing behind drugs, guns and diamonds.

Next the Girls showed a selection from their book The Hysterical Herstory of Hysteria and How It Was Cured: From Ancient Times Until Now. It outlines the many times over the centuries when the patriarchy has pinned females as crazed or diseased in some way. The book also highlights how the man-dominated society resolved to “cure” these women with surprisingly invasive methods.

To end their talk, Kahlo and Agha outlined their “Guerilla Girls’ Guide to Behaving Badly,” of which the highlights were:

“Try to change people’s minds, and do it in some unforgettable way.”

“Be anonymous: You won’t believe what comes out of your mouth while wearing a gorilla mask.”

“Show museums tough love.”

A long round of ap-plause and brief Q&A rounded out an evening that was equal parts informative and entertaining for all in attendance.

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