They enter the room wearing masks. The two Guerrilla Girls with Gorilla masks sit on the couch and introduce them as Frida Kahlo and Kathe Kollwitz, two prominent yesteryear artists. Of course, the founder members of the group, formed in the United States in 1985, don’t want to reveal their true identities, a strategy they adopted to fight for equality. “Back then, we were a bunch of young women artists in New York. We were in this great world of art where one is free to express. But, the system really sucked. When we started out, it was even worse for women artists and artists of colour,” says Frida.
“It is hard to tell how this idea happened. But, we had this idea of blaming everyone in the art world in this really unique way. That is how it started. Our first poster said: These artists allow their works to be shown in galleries that show no more than 10 per cent women artists or none at all. And, that was almost all galleries and artists were popular names. It was a breath of fresh air when people saw this, because we spoke about issues that everyone either wanted to forget or pretended not to exist,” laughs Kathe recalling those days.
The duo participates in the fourth edition of Kochi Muziris Biennale that kicked off on Wednesday and goes on till March 29. Their works adorn the walls of Aspinwall House and Cochin Club. One of the posters at the Cochin Club reads: When racism & sexism are no longer fashionable, what will your art collection be worth?
“We go all over the world spreading our message of fighting corruption and inequality. We are here because Anita Dube (curator of Kochi Biennale) invited us to participate here. We have done both indoor and outdoor works. Some of our earlier works have been translated to Malayalam. We have two galleries inside the Aspinwall where videos and bunch of banners are on show,” says Frida.
In 1985, when they started the movement in the United States, Kathe says, they didn’t imagine it would become a huge one. “We had this idea of putting a couple of posters in the New York city. The posters were a unique way of attracting people’s attention to the cause,” she says. “When we started it, we just spoke about our own situation. Over time, we learnt that this is a global issue. We always wanted people to think about the situation and change their mindset,” says Frida.
Over 55 people have been members of this feminist activist artist group that believes in an intersectional feminism that fights discrimination and seeks human rights for all people and all genders. Some stayed for days, some decades. Facts, humour, outrageous statements and visuals form the crux of the Guerrilla Girls’ works that have been exhibited across the globe. Although their forte is posters, they experiment with other mediums as well. “As of now, we have done 120 works – small posters, videos and outdoor works,” they say.
All these years, their anonymity has kept them alive and shifted everyone’s focus on issues. Ask them the reason to choose this strategy, they say, “We wanted to protect us. Also, we found it as a great way of generalising the situation and keeping the focus on the issue. It may not be new now, but, back then, it worked for us. Also, one wouldn’t be so interested to talk to us if we were not like this.”
And, the name happened by chance. “We wanted to be freedom fighters. We wanted to provoke people; make them angry and feel uncomfortable. When the press wanted our photographs, we had to come up with the masks. One of our early members said Guerrilla as Gorilla. Thus, got the idea of ‘being Guerilla girls with Gorilla masks’,” says Kathe. “We just went from one thing to another. We also learnt that we can’t change everything, so it is important to narrow down issues,” says Frida.
Although 33 years have gone by, the Guerrilla Girls say the issue still persists although the scenario has changed. That is one reason that makes their movement still relevant. “Galleries have started to show works of more women and artists of colour. But, the system is worse than ever. It is still driven by money and power. In the United States, billionaires, who are also art collectors, sit on the board of directors of every museum. They tend to influence what the museum shows and promote works of their artists,” they says.
However, the duo finds the current edition of Kochi Biennale, which is curated by a female artist for the first time, as a ray of hope. It is their first visit to India. They say they are so excited to be a part of this biennale as the theme of the art fest rhymes with their concept. Gurriella Girls will deliver a lecture performance at the biennale Pavillion today....