Melissa Merli: Guerrilla Girls still making their point

Melissa Merli: Guerrilla Girls still making their point

In 2002 a group of Hollywood female filmmakers asked the Guerilla Girls to take action on the paucity of women and people of color working behind the scenes in the movie industry.

The filmmakers showed the Guerilla Girls "unbelievable statistics," and the Girls took it on as a challenge, a founding member of the social-action group said Thursday at Krannert Art Museum in Champaign.

"They were able to rent for us a billboard on Hollywood Boulevard, not far from where the Oscars were given out," "Frida Kahlo" said of the Kodak Theatre, where the Academy Awards ceremony will take place tonight.

The Guerilla Girls created a billboard showing the Oscar statue as an overweight, balding, middle-aged white male, with the message "The Anatomically Correct Oscar. He's white & male, just like the guys who win!"

Underneath were statistics: "Best director has never been awarded to a woman. 92.8 percent of the writing awards have gone to men. Only 5.5 percent of the acting awards have gone to people of color."

The billboard went up before the '02 Academy Awards ceremony, where Denzel Washington and Halle Berry, both African-American actors, made history winning the best actor and actress awards.

"We thought we had something to do with it," "Kahlo" told 100 or so people who turned out to hear her Thursday afternoon at the museum on the University of Illinois campus.

Like the Guerrilla Girls, the female filmmakers who had requested the guerrilla action wanted to remain anonymous so their careers would not be jeopardized.

The Guerilla Girls broke onto the New York art scene in 1985, working at night (to avoid arrest) to put up street posters pointing out the gender and racial disparities in the museum and gallery world.

Starting in the '90s, the Girls broadened their scope to address racism, sexism and exclusivity beyond the art world, in other areas of society.

"We can't solve problems," "Kahlo" said. "We think of ourselves as professional complainers."

She urged her audience, made up mostly of students, to become professional, creative complainers as well.

"Kahlo" came to the museum in connection with the exhibition "Not Ready to Make Nice: Guerilla Girls in the Artworld and Beyond."

Originating at Columbia College in Chicago, the show was guest-curated by Neysa Page Lieberman, Columbia's director of the Department of Exhibition and Performance Spaces.

Lieberman came to Krannert with "Frida Kahlo," who wore a gorilla mask during her entire hourlong talk. Even museum director Kathleen Harleman and other staffers said they don't know her real name.

The two spoke in the gallery that houses the Guerrilla Girls exhibition, which features mainly billboard-size posters created over the last decade or so.

Most of the works have not been seen in the United States before; the exhibition remains on view through April 6 at Krannert then travels to three more venues.

In the posters, the Guerrilla Girls use advertising techniques such as humor to "hook viewers and get inside their brains," "Kahlo" said. On the posters they write "totally outrageous" things, backing up the statements with statistics.

(The facts behind the statistics should be viewed as totally outrageous. They certainly won't surprise women and people of color, though.)

The Guerrilla Girls were best known for their street posters in New York, where museums and galleries soon became "unhappy" with the group, "Kahlo" said.

Around the turn of the millennium, the Girls began receiving invitations to exhibit in Europe.

While most American art museums are privately operated, Europe's are not. Most are owned and run by governments, which have a greater public responsibility toward inclusivity, "Kahlo" said.

Among places overseas where the Guerrilla Girls displayed posters challenging the status quo were the Venice Biennale, one of the most important international art exhibitions in the world, and Turkey and Ireland.

In late 2009, they went to Montreal — the Gallery of the University of Quebec at Montreal had invited the group to create a poster commemorating the 20th anniversary of the l'Ecole Polytechnique massacre.

In that, a 25-year-old gunman entered the engineering school in Montreal, separated the women from the men and then proceeded to shoot the women, killing 14 and injuring another 10.

Before turning the gun on himself, he yelled that he was "fighting feminism" and called the women "a bunch of feminists."

For the Montreal poster, the Guerilla Girls focused on the history of hate speech, from ancient Greece to Rush Limbaugh, against women and feminists.

"We're bothered that it has always been OK to make denigrating public statements about women, and shocked by the violence and abuse this language continues to provoke," the group said on its website.

Noticing how demonized the term feminism has become, the Guerrilla Girls addressed that by also creating an interactive piece, "I'm Not a Feminist But if I Was, This is What I Would Complain About."

It's a large black chalkboard on which anyone can post complaints. The interactive piece was mounted at Krannert; it's already full of comments or complaints.

The Guerrilla Girls have done similar pieces elsewhere including Ireland and plan to document the responses to see whether there are cultural differences.

When the Guerrilla Girls formed, one argument against them was that the art world was based on meritocracy, and if art by women or people of color wasn't shown it was their fault, "Kahlo" said.

Now tokenism is coming up as an issue — museums and galleries tend to think if they show art by one woman and an artist of color, then the problem is taken care of, she said.

She told of a project the Guerrilla Girls did with The Washington Post. They did research on how many works by women and artists of colors were on display in Washington museums, drawing most of the information from the museums' websites.

The day before publication, Post reporters called the museums, among them the National Gallery, to confirm the findings, "Kahlo" said.

"At the National Gallery there was not one single work by an African-American artist on display," she said. "When the Post called, (museum staff) freaked out and said, 'Get back to us in the morning.'"

Overnight, the National Gallery installed a work by African-American artist Martin Puryear, resulting in 99.9 percent of the art on display having been created by white artists, she said.

"Kahlo" and Lieberman also spoke Thursday evening in the Krannert Art Museum auditorium to a standing-room only crowd.

News-Gazette staff writer Melissa Merli can be reached at 351-5367 or Her blog is at

Topics (2):Art, People