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No monkeying around

Donning gorilla masks and dressing in black attire, two Guerrilla Girls began their presentation by showing a slideshow of their activist work and handing out bananas to an audience of USF students.

The Guerrilla Girls, a political-activist group comprised of female artists, use nontraditional forms of protest to expose and criticize discrimination against women in the art world and other areas of culture and society.

The group formed in 1985, when a group of women became outraged over the lack of women and minorities represented at an exhibit in the Museum of Modern Art.

The two women identified themselves as Frida Kohl and Kathe Kollwitz, who just happen to be dead. Kohl and Kollwitz said that all Guerrilla Girls use the pseudonyms of dead female artists and wear gorilla masks. This anonymity allows people to focus on the issues rather than the artists themselves.

“We decided in the very beginning to be anonymous, and hence, we wound up in disguise appearing all over the world,”aid Kollwitz. “We were anonymous at first because we were a little afraid it would hurt our careers. But very soon we realized that by being masked, we became a symbol for what we believe in, which is fighting discrimination.”

There are other reasons for using pseudonyms of dead artists.

“There was a convenience factor. We needed to know which girl was speaking to the press. We also wanted to, in a way, bring back the memory of women artists who died anonymously or unknown in their lives,” Kohl said.

Rather than lecturing the audience about the injustice women face, Kohl and Kollwitz employed humor and audience participation to get their message across. Kohl and a male audience member re-enacted an actual conversation between an art dealer bigwig and a female journalist. The journalist was questioning Arnold Glimcher’s cover picture that excluded women and minorities that ran in the New York Times Magazine. The young man played the journalist, complete with a feminine voice, a long black and white skirt, and a pink flower strapped to his head with a ribbon, while Kohl pretended to smoke a cigar.

Nicole Fotovat, a political science major, said, “I really appreciate when feminists use humor, because people think feminists are just serious and not fun. I thought it was important that they gave a different perspective or vision of how feminists are.”

When brandishing placards and shouting in front of the museum made no impact, the women rethought their strategy.

“We realized we had to figure out some new strategies to make people realize the situation of women in the art world was getting worse rather than better,” Kohl said. “We knew that there were lots of women in the ’60s and ’70s whose work got recognized, but along came the ’80s and those reputations got wiped out.”

Kohl attributed the cause to be the Reagan administration.With their first posters plastered in SOHO, the women “wanted to point fingers” and “make people feel responsible for the situation” because everybody said it was someone else’s fault. The posters read, “What do these artists have in common? They allow their work to be shown in galleries that show no more than 10 percent women artists or none at all.”

“We went after every part of the art world that we felt was contributing to the situation and discriminated against women,” she said.

The targeted artists were shocked and angry, and subsequently, blamed the galleries. The galleries then blamed the museums who then blamed the critics. The critics then blamed the art collectors. Each group received posters broadcasting its guilt in the matter.

The Guerrilla Girls said they have received countless letters from artists, including poets, writers and animators, who felt that the groups expressed well what they were going through.

Initially, the reaction to their work was negative, but now they find its either positive or people think there isn’t a need to continue with their work because things are better.

“Early on we were attacked by a lot of men who thought equality was universal,” Kohl said.

“A lot of people acknowledge things have changed but there is still discrimination.”

  • Contact Erika Pratesi at