Frida Kahlo of Guerrilla Girls on the dangers of art world tokenism and feminism as an f-word
Anonymous avengers who started their quest in 1985, Guerrilla Girls spotlight institutionalized sexism and racism in the art world through radical acts of exposure. Simultaneously infiltrating the gallery world and educating the public on the lack of representation for women and people of color in art history and the contemporary landscape, Guerrilla Girls now operates around the world.
Frida Kahlo and Kathe Kollwitz.
And today this art activism comes to Denver. In advance of a free Guerrilla Girls performance tonight at Malone Theater at the Cable Center on the University of Denver campus, founding member Frida Kahlo spoke with Westword about the group's three decades of work and the current state of feminism.
Westword: You are a founding member of Guerrilla Girls, which has been around for almost thirty years. What was the catalyst for you?
guerrillagirls.com A 2012 update on Guerrilla Girls' 1989 campaign.
Frida Kahlo: I am one of the founding members -- I'm kind of a lifer. Kathe Kollwitz who will also be in Denver; she and I had known each other just as artist friends, and together we went to a protest at the Museum of Modern Art. We realized the show they were doing there in 1985, a show that was supposed to be a general survey of contemporary art from all over the world, out of almost two hundred artists, there were only seventeen women.
We had been in the art world; we knew that there were equal numbers of men and women artists. We had also been through art school so we also knew that for decades, the majority of graduates of art schools were female. So we couldn't figure out what was happening to women artists and we just wanted to publicly ask that question.
The first protest at the Museum of Modern Art was kind of old-fashioned, with placards and chants and a picket line and it really didn't make much of an impact. So we vowed that we would find some way to make this issue something people were thinking about and talking about and perhaps, trying to solve.
That's interesting -- sometimes even when we are being radical, we tend to use a formulaic approach. Like the picket line you're talking about.
Well, I think in the art world it is different because there are people who make the art, people who consume the art and the people who love the art -- and they may overlap but they are not the same. There's a handful of people who buy art, there are lots of artists who make art and there is an even larger group of people who love art and go to museums. What we were doing with this sort of traditional picket line was we were asking people who go to museums to think about this.
What we realized is that most of them really trust museums and they thought that the art world was a meritocracy. Not too many of them were actually involved in the art world, but they were onlookers and they just really thought that the curator of the Museum of Modern Art was making decisions based on some kind of impartial criteria, and who were they to question these professionals? What we wanted to do was ask the larger art community -- artists, collectors, curators -- why this situation exists.
How do you think the situation of representation stands today?
It's always three steps forward, two steps back. Things are better for women artists and artists of color than they have ever been. It's kind of a no-brainer now that you can't write a history of a culture without including all of the voices of the culture in that history. But that being said, the art world -- visual art -- has become a commodity. It's become this precious luxury item that wealthy people, the one percent, want to consume; they want to use it as a symbol of their high-minded awareness of culture. So, it's a problem. It has really made art like jewelry or furs. It's the kind of thing where people are more concerned with what art costs than what art is about.