One morning in the spring of 1985, New York City woke up to posters that brought attention to the lack of commitment towards women artists. Heralded as “public service announcements,” and pasted on the walls in the neighbourhoods of SoHo and East Village, the posters not just protested blatant sexism but also announced the arrival of the Guerrilla Girls as an art collective that has become one of the most unequivocal provocateurs in the arts. They are exposing sexism, racism, corrupt practices and biases.
Their faces hidden behind the now-notorious gorilla masks, the women in the collective remain anonymous, known by their aliases, dead women artists who questioned norms in their own practice. “When we first came together, we didn’t really have a strategy or a plan,” recalls Kathe (Kollwitz). Her green-rimmed spectacles distinguish her from Frida (Kahlo) who wears glittery pink lipstick. The two comprise the art collective whose total numbers are speculated but not known. “We have several secrets and that is one of them,” says Kathe, from behind the rubber mask. She only removes it to drink water when she is alone in the room, outside which are curious attendees of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, where the two will deliver a lecture-performance on December 14.
Several posters of the collective are pasted across Aspinwall House, the main venue of the Biennale. In one, they revisit the revealing numbers that they had shared after making their debut. It compares the number of one-person exhibitions of women artists at NYC Museums in 1985 and 2015 — 0 to 1 in 1985, and 1 to 2 in 2015. It is no different in the rest of the world. In 2016, the collective had investigated gender imbalance in European museums and galleries by sending questionnaires to hundreds of institutions. “Most of them did not respond. One museum told us that art by women was very important to them but revealed that they only had 12 per cent women artists in their collection,” says Kathe . “All the people making decisions are billionaire collectors. Their choices reflect their interests, so we question whether that income inequality also leads to a very skewed history of art,” adds Frida.
The collective has refused to be represented by galleries for 30 years and taken their protests to the streets as well as some of the most prestigious museums and the Venice Biennale. While their posters are available online, they are also part of museum collections. “We can now criticise them on their own walls,” says Kathe.
While the members have embraced both criticism and admiration — their own demographic altering along the way — there have also been numerous learnings. Early on, after curating an exhibition of women artists at The Palladium, a popular dance club in New York known for showcasing male artists, the members decided to never to curate. “We were talking about filtering and ended up doing the same. We couldn’t beat the system and join it,” says Kathe . In India, they curious about the gender dynamics in the field of arts. “Are there any statistics available on the gender imbalance in Bollywood?” questions Frida . They are more aware of the recent allegations of sexual misconduct levied against KMB co-founder Riyas Komu. About #MeToo, Frida says, “We will be speaking about sexual harassment and violence against women. We realise that happens everywhere in the world and now is the moment for women and men who have been sexually assaulted to speak out. We encourage the victims of sexual assault to speak out and believe that they should not be silenced, victimised or ignored.” Will this be referenced in their performance at the Biennale? The duo want their audience for the act to unfold.