As someone who appreciates art for its beauty rather than the name of the artist, I’ve not often paid much attention to the creator of any individual piece. I also have a tendency to have a personal preference for artists of years gone. Yet, when I walked into the Tate Modern in London and was presented with the work from the artist collective the Guerrilla Girls, it really stood out to me.
The Guerrilla Girls are an anonymous group of feminist artists and activists, started in 1985 in New York City, whose work seeks to fight racism and sexism in our shared global culture with a specific focus on the art world. They all use pseudonyms based on deceased female artists and don gorilla masks to ensure anonymity as they feel their work is more important than they are as individuals. The group formed in response to an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, “An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture” in 1984, which showcased the work of 165 artists, of which only 13 (7.9%) were women.
Now, I had always assumed that, being a more liberal industry, these issues would be less prevalent in the modern-day art world. For instance, many of the art gallery openings I’ve been to in the past were a pretty even amount of men to women, though thinking back on it now there was what should have been a noticeable lack of racial diversity in the room. Perhaps it is because the artists themselves have never been of much interest to me. Sure, nearly all of the “greats” I studied in my art history classes were men, I was under the, now understood to be misguided notion, that the art industry has moved past that.
Just a couple of days after noticing their in-your-face message at the Tate Modern, I was walking in my ‘hood and noticed a giant sign outside of the Whitechapel Gallery and noted that they have their own exhibition on there as well. The sign says “The Guerrilla Girls Asked 383 European Museums About Diversity. Only ¼ Responded. Come Inside and See Why.” The sign is beckoning you to come in and experience the exhibition “Is it even worse in Europe?” where the group seeks to explore diversity throughout European Arts organisations. In the exhibition, they show a giant version of the questionnaire they sent to the galleries and museums around Europe. The questions included "How many artists in your collection and/or exhibition program are gender non-conforming?" and "Is there a little-known artist in your collection who you particularly admire and think deserves to be appreciated? Could you describe their work?" They also posted the actual responses, some written by hand, all over the wall as a sort of wallpaper. One of the questions that was regularly left blank by these institutions was "Are the worst practices of US museums being adopted in Europe?" To show the Guerrilla Girls are not afraid to name and shame, they listed the institutions that did not respond right there on the floor. They also called out the Whitechapel Gallery in one piece, stating that while 45% of the artists in group exhibitions from 2011-2015 were from outside Europe and the US, only 13% of the solo shows were artists from those regions. They received a letter from the DESTE Foundation for Contemporary Art in Athens, Greece in response to their questionnaire in which the opening line states their view that "It is not the gender that makes a good artist, it is TALENT" and that "the problem now, with this over-commercialized Art-world, is that many strong and talented but not fashionable or trendy artists do not get the attention they deserve." Now while I completely agree with this, especially with regards to the fashion industry, I do wonder if this was some sort of cop out so they didn't have to answer the questions put to them.
In addition to the Whitechapel Gallery, the pieces of which I took note at the Tate Modern mixed art with statistics and facts to call out inequalities in the art world. For instance, one piece noted that only ONE NYC museum last year (1986) saw a female artist have her own one-person exhibition. There is another piece that notes that while women in America earn on average 2/3 of what a man does for the same job (arguably, a somewhat outdated statistic, but compelling nonetheless), that female artists earn only 1/3 that of men. And apparently, there are male artists who refuse to have their work shown in the same exhibition as women!
In this era that we regrettably call “post-truth,” I am encouraged to see that there are those out there using their medium and skills to bring issues of social justice and equality out into the public discussion. This week, as we have a fashion focus here, I’ll be showing you collections by strong female fashion designers who have perfected their craft to tell stories of their heritage.
You can see the Guerrilla Girls exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery until the 5th of March, 2017.
All photos Copyright © Guerrilla Girls Courtesy www.guerrillagirls.com