Can art change the world? It might not fix everything, but it can definitely be a powerful way to protest and bring about social change. For proof, you needn't look further than Guerilla Girls, a collective that's been standing strong for over thirty years, tackling racism and sexism within the art world. Each guerilla girl adopts the name of a famous deceased female artist, such as Georgia O'Keefe, Eva Hesse and Kathe Kollwitz, and uses it - along with a gorilla mask – to anonymously spread a message of equality and empowerment.
The work of Guerilla Girls often features facts and figures on large billboard posters; the series “Naked Through The Ages” is arguably one of the most striking. A stylised adaptation of Ingres' Grand Odalisque, itself a painting of an 'exotic' nude female figure that has some seriously dodgy attitudes to race and gender in it, is accompanied by two striking figures: one, the number of female nudes exhibited in New York City's Metropolitan Museum, and then the number of female artists displayed in the same space. The imbalance in the first 1985 piece was striking. What, perhaps, is more shocking, is the continuation of this project in 19 and 20, with figures equally as shocking. With work like this – pieces that are now actually in the collection of – Guerilla Girls make us question what we value as important and influential art.
There has always been politically charged art, but Guerilla Girls work feels like such a revolutionary shift because of how straight-on it addresses issues of inequality in the art world. There are no illusions or pretenses; their bold designs tackle the issues head-on. And these pieces still feel relevant thirty years on; the project was sparked by an exhibition, An International Survey of Painting and Sculpture, that was meant to surmise the contemporary art world and all it's diversity, yet featured only 13 women. Over thirty years later, this Guerilla Girls piece or even a look at Oscar nominations shows the inequalities that remain to be tackled.
Guerilla Girls have been controversial in more than one way; of course, their projects draw attention to problematic aspects of art and often cast the art world in a negative light. However, they are also controversial for their own lack of equality, sometimes, with several critiques – often by other Guerilla Girls themselves - calling to be more inclusive of raising attention of racism and homophobia in the art world alongside sexism. Although not directly influenced by Guerilla Girls, recent movements such as the Art Hoe Collective have much more of a focus on opening the art world up to young artists who don't fit the traditional white male cisgender stereotype of Western art history
Looking at these seemingly unchanging statistics, it might seem like Guerilla Girls aren't changing anything. But thirty years is a tiny drop when you consider the centuries of rich art history we have to look at, and projects such as this help us to begin to actively redress that balance and create a more equal society.