They may wear gorilla masks, but the Guerrilla Girls don't monkey around. Members of this anonymous group of women artists, formed in 1985 to highlight the lack of women and minorities in the art world, are coming to Denver for the first time to raise a little consciousness.
Sporting simian disguises, the Guerrilla Girls have taken on such heavy hitters as New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Tony Awards and the Sundance Film Festival during the past seventeen years. Comparing themselves to other cloaked avengers such as Robin Hood, Batman and the Lone Ranger, the Girls have changed their original slogan, "The conscience of the art world," to "Your cultural conscience."
"We are here to empower you," says Guerrilla Girl Aphra Behn. "We try to inspire people to fight discrimination. We are living proof that feminists can be funny." Aphra Behn, the English playwright and novelist who died in 1689? That's right: Members take on pseudonyms of dead female artists -- others include Georgia O'Keeffe, Anaïs Nin and Frida Kahlo -- and wear the gorilla masks to protect their identities and to keep the focus on the issues instead of on their individual personalities.
"We were really afraid that people would find out who we were" and seek reprisals, says the modern-day Behn, who notes that the secretive group currently has 28 members. "The art world is a very small place."
It was that world that first motivated the Guerrilla Girls; playing on the fear of guerrilla warfare, their claim that "we could be anyone; we are everywhere" was meant to scare its denizens. But the art world was just the beginning: These New York-based rebels, who have published two books and designed more than eighty posters, have also raged against homelessness, sexism, racism in the workplace, violence against women and the Gulf War. And by calling themselves "girls," they feel that they revived a word that has a negative connotation for grown women. In the '80s, Behn explains, "people were taking back language, reclaiming words that weren't flattering."
With an archival slide show of their political posters, four Guerrilla Girls, including Behn, are coming to Denver to explain their mission. And after looking at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts' current schedule of "all white-male classics," Behn believes that Denver is ready for some girl time. "It's a very lively show; there is a lot of improvisation," Behn says. "Sometimes we sing, tell stories, banter. We use humor as a tool to explain who we are."
Keeping up with the times, the Guerrilla Girls have moved from posters to more modern outlets to spread their message to a wider audience. "We're using new tactics: The Web (www.guerrillagirls.info.), billboards," Behn says. "We want people to look at our sites and see our shows and basically rip us off, use our ideas. We want to give you the power." A billboard currently hanging in Los Angeles protesting the Academy Awards reads: "The Anatomically Correct Oscar -- He's white and male, just like the guys who win!"
Armed with statistics such as the fact that less than 1 percent of all Broadway musicals are written or produced by women, or that only 3 percent of Academy Awards for acting have gone to people of color, Behn says that the Girls' message remains fresh. "It is still bad for women and artists of color. We started making some progress, but it's two steps forward and three steps back. That's why we still have to do our work," she says. "We can't hang up our masks just yet."
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