It’s a Jungle Out There: Guerrilla Warfare in the Art World

© Guerrilla Girls. Courtesy

Taking on a male-dominated art world with irreverence and bite, the Guerrilla Girls collective is best known for its cleverly worded posters, which slyly point out inequities of gender and race in popular culture.

The Guerrilla Girls formed in 1985, in response to a survey exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Although the exhibition purported to present an international who’s who of recent painters and sculptors, only 13 of the 169 artists in the show were female. Particularly inflamed by the curator’s comment that “any artist who wasn’t in the show should rethink his career,” seven female artists protested outside the museum, and the Guerrilla Girls were born.

In the exhibition Guerrilla Girls: It’s a Jungle Out There! at the National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives — which houses the most complete collection of Guerrilla Girls material in the country — several Guerrilla Girls posters are on display. Primarily text-based in black-and-white, the posters poke fun at the art establishment while also issuing a call to arms.

© Guerrilla Girls. Courtesy

In The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist (1988), for example, said advantages include, “Working without the pressure of success” and “Not having to choke on big cigars or paint in Italian suits.” In a similar vein, in When Racism & Sexism are No Longer Fashionable, What Will Your Art Collection Be Worth? (1989), the Guerrilla Girls suggest that, for the $17.7-million price tag of a Jasper Johns, a collector could have purchased at least one work by all 67 women artists listed on the poster — artists that include luminaries such as Diane Arbus, Julia Margaret Cameron, Mary Cassatt, Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keeffe, and even Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun.

Vigée Le Brun — the subject of a major exhibition at the National Gallery, opening in June 2016 — also figures prominently in the Guerrilla Girls’ best-known publication, The Guerrilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art (1998). In a “posthumous letter about herself” to the Guerilla Girls, also on display in the exhibition, Vigée Le Brun gives a brief account of her life, ending with: “In sum, I did well. I supported myself and my family, and my work is in every royal collection in Europe [and were it not] for my husband and the exigencies of history, I would have had great wealth.” As one of the most successful women artists of her age, it is clear why Vigée Le Brun’s life and career were singled out by the Guerrilla Girls.

© Guerrilla Girls. Courtesy

Beginning in 1985, and continuing through to the present day, the Guerrilla Girls — many accomplished artists in their own right — staged demonstrations and launched postering campaigns to share their messages, while hiding their identities behind gorilla masks. As they gained momentum, they added concerns about racism and tokenism to their platform, ultimately branching out beyond the art world to take on film, mass culture and even politics. Approaching their work with wit and irony, the group has been credited with sparking an international dialogue around issues of gender inequity and racism in the arts, making curators, critics and collectors more accountable.

In addition to the Guerrilla Girls’ familiar black-and-white posters, the exhibition also includes the group’s first colour poster — considered by many to be their most iconic image — asking, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” The text is accompanied by a photographic rendering of the famous La Grande Odalisque by Ingres, with a gorilla head placed over the subject’s face.

In 2005, the group created large-format posters and an installation for the Venice Biennale, marking the first Biennale in 110 years to be overseen by women. Interestingly, many of the major museums most roundly criticized by the Guerrilla Girls — including the Tate Modern and MoMA — now have works by the group in their collections.

Guerrilla Girls: It’s a Jungle Out There! is on view at the National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives until September 11, 2016. Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, 1755–1842 opens in the NGC's Special Exhibition Galleries on June 10, 2016.

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