August 18, 2019 | 83° F

Former Guerrilla Girls share secrets behind their masks

Photo by Alexandra DeMatos |

On Monday night, two of the original feminist art world activists took off their masks to share with a packed auditorium the work of the Guerrilla Girls.

The Guerrilla Girls is a collective that started in 1985 in New York City focused on being the “conscious of the art world,” bringing to light the injustices regarding diversity and inclusion.

The women that banded together after an exhibit of contemporary artists at the Museum of Modern Art failed to show an adequate number of female artists and artists of color.

Being artists themselves, they kept their identities a secret to protect their own careers and took on the names of deceased female artists (keeping their memories alive as well).

Alice Neel (1900-1984) and Hannah Höch (1889-1978) graced the Zimmerli Museum last Monday. These two original G Girls took to the streets in the mid-80s, armed with what Neel called “feminist anger, real stats and humor.”

In an age before computers, the founding Guerrilla Girls became statisticians and researchers, going through data to prove their point.

But being women, and being labeled feminists on top of that, came with a unique set of challenges, Neel said. One of the biggest obstacles was the misconception that feminists didn’t have a sense of humor.

“We had to make feminism sexy, funny and a good word,” Höch said.

With this sense of awareness and facts on their side, the Guerrilla Girls took to the streets, pasting posters around New York’s art gallery neighborhoods in the middle of the night and putting stickers on the walls and stalls of gallery bathrooms.

One of the most famous is a bright yellow poster with a cut out of the nude female figure from the Grande Odalisque wearing a Guerrilla Girls mask next to text that reads, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? Less than 3 percent of the artists in the Modern Art Sections are women, but 83 percent of the nudes are female.”

Witty banter and eye-catching graphics were as important to them as the message themselves and at times it was difficult to draw the line between where personal art ended and artistic activism began, Neel said.

Neel and Höch, now retired from their days of postering New York City in the dead of night, are developing the next generation of activism. Their project, called PEARL (Protecting Essential Art Related Legacies), has been in the works for three years because as anyone in the art world knows, there is still work to be done.

“The (National Endowment for the Arts) is threatened to be cut, and I look back at these posters that we did and we’re back there again,” Neel said. “PEARL legacy is going to help this by persevering and continuing to make our voices heard and not give up and be intimidated or be bullied.”

And as Neel and Höch mentioned consistently in their presentation, progress will be a group effort moving forward and an activist’s work is never done.

“We’re going to have to take the bull by the horns ourselves and not rely on these big institutions,” Neel said. “It’s sad you say you have to do it that way, but that shouldn’t stop you.”

Brittany Gibson

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