The art world prefers white men.
That’s what the Guerilla Girls took from the MoMA’s 1984 exhibition, An International Survey of Painting and Sculpture. The show was supposed to be a representation of artists around the world. But of 165 artists, only 13 women were included, and no people of color. Since then, the Guerilla Girls have been protesting discrimination in the art world using their signature methods — posters and gorilla suits.
Now, it seems the tables have turned as the Dallas Museum of Art celebrates the Guerilla Girls’ rogue activism with an exhibition of their work.
This free show is small but striking. Step into the gallery and you’ll be confronted with dozens of posters from years of protesting. There are almost too many to take in, from the famous “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?” featuring a classical nude wearing a gorilla mask, to a cheeky poster comparing President Donald Trump to a newt.
Posters are lined up in neat rows from floor to ceiling, a detail that particularly short visitors may not appreciate. Two flat screen TVs sit on opposite walls, one playing a silent loop of “M.I.A. in the MIA,” and the other playing two different videos narrated by the Guerrilla Girls themselves: “Girlsplaining Museum Ludwig” and “Guerrilla Girls Guide to Behaving Badly.” The feed is almost overwhelming, with loud voices telling you to “Be crazy! Be anonymous! Be an outsider!” as you try to read posters lambasting major art galleries for their lack of representation.
But isn’t that what activism is supposed to do? It’s not necessarily pleasant. It pushes you out of your comfort zone and makes you question the powers that be. That’s what the Guerrilla Girls do with their poster campaigns, and that’s what the DMA has accomplished with this exhibition.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Guerilla Girls’ show if it didn’t question the very institution which produced it. Not even the DMA is safe from criticism, though it has slightly better stats than other major museums in the U.S. Eight percent of the DMA’s permanent collection was created by women, compared to the national average of 3 to 5 percent in other major museums.
So, have the Guerrilla Girls made things better for women artists and artists of color? Dr. Anna Katherine Brodbeck, The Nancy and Tim Hanley Associate Curator of Contemporary Art at the Dallas Museum of Art, feels that they’ve helped make major strides since the ‘80s.
“I think that the Guerrilla Girls’ methods have proven even more effective over the long term. In a time where individuals are attacked when they denounce their own experiences with discriminations or harassment, anonymity has been an undeniable asset,” says Brodbeck. “The Guerrilla Girls have kept to a clear, consistent, forceful message, imbued with humor, without being overshadowed by the personal attacks that often follow when a woman speaks out.”
Combating sexism and racism in a historically discriminatory field is not easy. Purveyors of art are accustomed to accumulating works by white males, and viewers are used to seeing them. Systemic hurdles are still in place.
“Women still have to fight against gendered interpretations of their work, lack of museum, gallery, and critical support, and a penalty for motherhood, among other challenges. It is our job as art professionals to fight for inclusion and to overcome our own subconscious biases that have been ingrained in us through the dominant culture,” Brodbeck says.
How do we combat those biases? Attending this exhibition is a good start. The Guerrilla Girls are an eye-opening force in the art world, and their work shows us how far we’ve come as a society, and how far we still have to go. Catch The Guerilla Girls at the DMA while you can—the exhibition ends on September 30.