The Guerrilla Girls: Using Art to Stage a Revolution

The Guerrilla Girls fought against the art industry’s sexism, racism and discrimination in the 1980s with unstoppable punk energy. Their confrontational poster campaigns altered the art world towards inclusivity.

Aug 6, 2020By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art
guerrilla girls exhibitions
How Many Women Artists Had One-Person Exhibitions In NYC Art Museums Last Year? by the Guerrilla Girls, 1985, via Tate, London


The rebellious Guerrilla Girls exploded into the contemporary art scene in the mid-1980s, donning gorilla masks and causing hair-raising provocation in the name of equal rights. Armed with stacks of data about institutional sexism and racism they spread their message far and wide, “fighting discrimination with facts” by pasting huge posters and slogans in cities around the world which forced art galleries and collectors to sit up and take notice. “We’re the conscience of the art world,” wrote one of the rebellious Guerrilla Girls, “…. (female) counterparts to the mostly male traditions of anonymous do-gooders like Robin Hood, Batman, and the Lone Ranger.”


Who Are The Guerrilla Girls? 

The Guerrilla Girls, via the Guerrilla Girls Website


The Guerrilla Girls are an anonymous group of activist-artists dedicated to fighting institutional sexism, racism, and inequality within the art world. Since their formation in New York in 1985, they have challenged the art establishment with hundreds of provocative art projects staged around the world including poster campaigns, performances, speaking tours, letter-writing campaigns, and influential publications. Wearing gorilla masks in public to hide their true identities, members of the rebellious Guerrilla Girls group have instead adopted the names of famous historical and overlooked women in the arts including Frida Kahlo, Kathe Kollwitz, and Gertrude Stein. Because of this anonymity, no one really knows who the Guerrilla Girls are to this day, while they claim: “We could be anyone and we are everywhere.”


A Catalyst For Change


Two cataclysmic events within the art world triggered the formation of the rebellious Guerrilla Girls group in the mid-1980s. The first was the publication of Linda Nochlin’s ground-breaking Feminist essay Why have there been no great women artists? published in 1971. Nochlin drew awareness to the glaring sexism at play throughout art history, pointing out how women artists have been systematically ignored or side-lined for centuries and were still being denied the same opportunities for advancement as their male peers. She wrote, “The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, but in our institutions and our education.”


You’re Seeing Less Than Half The Picture by The Guerrilla Girls, 1989, via Tate, London


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The second trigger to spark the rebellious Guerrilla Girls movement came in 1984 when the major survey exhibition An International Survey of Painting and Sculpture was mounted at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Heralded as the most important event in the art world yet, the show shockingly featured work by 148 white, male artists, only 13 women, and no artists from ethnically diverse groups. To make matters worse, the show’s curator Kynaston McShine commented: “any artist who wasn’t in the show should rethink his career.” Spurred into action by this shocking disparity, a group of women artists from New York gathered together to stage a protest outside MoMA, waving placards and performing chants. Disappointed by the lack of response from the public, who just walked straight past them, the Guerrilla Girls noted, “nobody wanted to hear about women, about feminism.”


Going Incognito

The Guerrilla Girls, 1990, via the Guerrilla Girls Website


Fired up and ready for action, the earliest members of the rebellious Guerrilla Girls group set about finding a better way to garner attention. Choosing to take on a ‘guerrilla’ style of undercover street art, they played on the word ‘guerrilla’ by donning gorilla masks to disguise their real identities. Members also adopted pseudonyms lifted from real women from throughout art history, particularly influential figures who they felt deserved greater recognition and respect including Hannah Hoch, Alice Neel, Alma Thomas, and Rosalba Carriera. Hiding their identities allowed them to focus on political issues rather than their own artistic identities, but many members also found liberating freedom in anonymity, with one commenting, “If you’re in a situation where you’re a little afraid to speak up, put a mask on. You won’t believe what comes out of your mouth.” 


Playful Feminism

Dearest Art Collector by the Guerrilla Girls, 1986, via Tate, London 


In their early years, the rebellious Guerrilla Girls gathered a range of institutional statistics to argue the conviction of their cause. This information was then made into stark posters with pithy slogans, inspired by the text art of artists including Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger. Like these artists, they adopted a concise, humorous, and confrontational approach to present their findings in a more eye-catching, attention-grabbing manner akin to advertising and the mass media. 


One trope the Guerrilla Girls adopted was deliberately girlish handwriting and a language associated with youthful pen-pals, as seen in Dearest Art Collector, 1986. Printed on pink paper and featured a sad smiley face, it confronted art collectors with the statement, “It has come to our attention that your collection, like most, does not contain enough art by women,” adding, “We know you feel terrible about this and will rectify the situation immediately.” 


The activist approach to art followed by the rebellious Guerrilla Girls was greatly influenced by the Feminist movement of the 1970s, whose war between the sexes was still raging afire in the 1980s. But the Guerrilla Girls also aimed to bring cheeky fun into a language more associated with serious, high-brow intellectualism, with one Guerrilla Girl pointing out, “We use humor to prove that feminists can be funny…” 


Taking Art To The Streets

The Guerrilla Girls by George Lange, via The Guardian


The rebellious Guerrilla Girls snuck out in the middle of the night with their handmade posters, pasting them onto various locations around New York City, particularly the SoHo neighborhood, which was a gallery hot spot. Their posters were often directed at galleries, museums or individuals, forcing them to confront their blinkered approaches, as seen in How Many Women Had One-Person Exhibitions at NYC Museums Last Year?, 1985, which alerts our attention to just how few women were offered solo exhibitions across all the city’s major museums throughout the course of an entire year. 


Adopting the maxim of “fighting discrimination with facts, humor and fake fur” the Guerrilla Girls quickly caused a stir amongst the New York art scene. Writer Susan Tallman points out how effective their campaign was, observing, “The posters were rude; they named names and they printed statistics. They embarrassed people. In other words, they worked.” One example is their poster from 1985, On October 17 The Palladium Will Apologise to Women Artists, calling for the major art venue and dance club The Palladium to own up for their shameful neglect in showcasing the work of women. The club responded to their request, joining forces with the rebellious Guerrilla Girls to stage a week-long exhibition featuring work by women artists.


Hitting Their Stride

Guerrilla Girls’ Pop Quiz by the Guerrilla Girls, 1990, via Tate, London


By the late 1980s, the Guerrilla Girls had hit their stride, spreading their message far and wide across the United States with their punchy, eye-catching posters, stickers, and billboards featuring stark, hard-hitting facts. Reactions to their art were mixed, with some criticizing them of tokenism or filling quotas, but by and large, they developed a wide cult following. Their role within the art world was cemented when several major organizations supported their cause; in 1986 The Cooper Union organized several panel discussions with art critics, dealers, and curators who made suggestions on ways of addressing the gender divide in art collections. A year later, the independent arts space The Clocktower invited the rebellious Guerrilla Girls to stage a rebellious protest event against the Whitney Museum’s Biennial of contemporary American art, which they titled Guerrilla Girls review the Whitney.


A Radical New Art

Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum? by the Guerrilla Girls, 1989, via Tate, London


In 1989 the Guerrilla Girls made their most controversial piece yet, a poster titled Do Women Have to be Naked to get into the Met Museum? Up until now, there had been no imagery to accompany their terse statements, so this work was a radical new departure. It featured a nude lifted from Romanticist painter Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque, 1814, converted into black and white and given a gorilla head. The poster presented the number of nudes (85%) with the number of women artists (5%) in the Met Museum. They concisely addressed the objectification of women in this prominent art institution, plastering their posters across New York’s advertising space for the entire city to see. With loud, brash colors and eye-watering statistics, the image quickly became the definitive image for the Guerrilla Girls.


When Racism And Sexism Are No Longer Fashionable, How Much Will Your Art Collection Be Worth? by the Guerrilla Girls, 1989, via Tate, London


Another iconic work made in the same year: When Racism and Sexism are no Longer Fashionable, What Will Your Art Collection be Worth?, 1989, challenged art collectors to be more progressive, suggesting they should consider investing in a wider, more diverse pool of artists, rather than spending astronomical amounts on single pieces by the then more fashionable “white males.” 


An International Audience

What’s the Difference Between a Prisoner of War and A Homeless Person? by the Guerrilla Girls, 1991, via The National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne 


Throughout the 1990s the Guerrilla Girls responded to criticism that their art was exclusive to “white feminism” by creating activist artworks addressing a range of issues including homelessness, abortion, eating disorders, and war. Guerrilla Girls Demand A Return to Traditional Values on Abortion, 1992, pointed out how mid-19th century “traditional” Americans were actually pro-abortion, and What’s the Difference Between a POW and A Homeless Person?, 1991, highlighted how even prisoners of war are given greater rights than the homeless. 


Guerrilla Girls Demand A Return To Traditional Values On Abortion by the Guerrilla Girls, 1992, via The National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne


Moving beyond the United States, the rebellious Guerrilla Girls group expanded to include politicized interventions in Hollywood, London, Istanbul, and Tokyo. They also published their iconic book The Guerrilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art in 1998, aimed at deconstructing the “stale, male, pale, Yale” history of art that had become the dominant canon. Though the Guerrilla Girls had initially set out as an activist group, by this stage in their careers their posters and interventions were becoming increasingly recognized by the art world as vitally important works of art; today printed posters and other memorabilia relating to protests and events by the group are held in museum collections all around the world.


The Influence Of The Guerrilla Girls Today


Today the original, rebellious Guerrilla Girls’ campaign has expanded into three offshoot organizations that continue their legacy. The first, ‘The Guerrilla Girls’, continues the group’s original mission. The second group, who call themselves ‘Guerrilla Girls on Tour’ are a theatre collective that performs plays and street theatre actions, while the third is known as ‘GuerrillaGirlsBroadBand’, or ‘The Broads,’ focussing on issues of sexism and racism in youth culture.


Not Ready to Make Nice Exhibition at the SHE BAM! Gallery, 2020, via the Guerrilla Girls Website

Looking back, the band of rebellious Guerrilla Girls in the 1980s transformed the relationship between art and politics, allowing the two to bleed into one another like never before. They also proved women and ethnically diverse artists, writers and curators should play an active and equal role in art history, pushing institutions to take a long, hard look at their attitudes towards inclusivity. It is also hard to imagine the voices of today’s most progressive Post-Feminist artists such as Coco Fusco or Pussy Riot without the Guerrilla Girls’ trailblazing influence. Though the battle is not yet won, their tireless campaign has played a vital role in edging us closer to true equality and acceptance. 


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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.