Activism

Frida Kahlo of Guerrilla Girls on the dangers of art world tokenism and feminism as an f-word

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I would say that the three steps forward is that everyone knows we have to include women and artists of color in history, but the two steps back is that the art world has become about money. It has become an instrument of the one percent, and it is really hard to combat that when everyone, even the New York Times when they write articles about art auctions, they talk about high prices, as though that is the way you decide which artists are most famous or most important. If we did that in literature or in film, it would be laughable because we would have been celebrating Danielle Steele.

There are other issues that have come up -- the issue of tokenism. If you show one woman or one artist of color and then think that the problem is taken care of, that's an issue. Also, there's this issue of a glass ceiling. Women and artists of color are allowed in the entry level, but they aren't allowed to go too far.

The idea that they can't or won't ever be considered "masters."

We need a new word for that, don't we? (Laughs.) "Seminal" -- that's the one that I think that's really funny. But I guess we're idealists in that we want the world to change, but we're realists because we realize that it's not going to happen overnight and it's never going to be perfect and there will always be new problems and challenges that will pop up.

We never really thought about tokenism -- we thought, artists of color will be admitted to museums and they will be selected. We had no idea that museums would show the same one or two woman artists over and over again or the same one or two artists of color over and over again. There's a lot still to be done.

This is such a broad question, but how to do you feel about where feminism is in 2014?

It's a little disturbing that the word or label "feminist" is still demonized -- we have so many more opportunities than we did twenty-five or thirty years ago and feminist thought and feminist fellowship and feminist activism has really changed the world. So many women have benefitted from that who are afraid to call themselves feminists because they think it makes them, first of all, male-haters. I don't know where they get that idea. Feminists love men and, actually, we want more male feminists. We think that it is really important.

Or (some women) may think that being a feminist will make them unpopular or will threaten their professional opportunities. I don't know where that comes from; it isn't the same in other cultures. In some ways, being called a feminist in Europe or in the developing world is an easier thing to do than to call yourself a feminist in the United States. We want to hone in on what that's all about and try to address it somehow.

What does a Guerrilla Girls presentation entail when you come to do an event like the one you're doing tonight in Denver?

It's a lot of things -- we have a playlist, a short video, we do some readings of misogynist hate speech through the ages. Then we talk about how we started and we take the audience through our evolution to show how we've kind of changed our thinking, how our work has changed. Then we usually do some kind of reading or presentation of the latest work that we've done. Then we engage the audience with a Q&A afterward.

Are you masked for all of Guerrilla Girls events? Why is anonymity important to you?

Oh, yes, we'll be in jungle drag. Early on we decided to be anonymous for self-serving reasons, because we were biting the hand that we wanted to feed us -- the art establishment, the art system. Then we soon realized that it was a great way of making the issues straightforward and not personal, so people couldn't say, well, "She's complaining about museums because she didn't get what she wanted (as an artist.)" So this way, there was no way to personalize it -- the press really likes to personalize women complaining about anything.
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Bree Davies is a multimedia journalist, artist advocate and community organizer born and raised in Denver. Rooted in the world of Do-It-Yourself arts and music, Davies co-founded Titwrench experimental music festival, is host of the local music and comedy show Sounds on 29th on CPT12 Colorado Public Television and is creator and host of the civic and social issue-focused podcast, Hello? Denver? Are You Still There? Her work is centered on a passionate advocacy for all ages, accessible, inclusive, non-commercial and autonomous DIY art spaces and music venues in Denver.
Contact: Bree Davies