Going ape in the gender jungle

A female hit squad stalks the streets of New York in gorilla masks looking for sexist curators. Louisa Buck tracks down the Guerilla Girls

Frida Kahlo is alive and well and can be reached on a New York number. Gertrude Stein and Georgia O'Keefe are also available for interview. Taking the names of dead women artists and writers is just one of the ways in which the Guerilla Girls maintain their strict code of anonymity. The wearing of hairy gorilla masks in public is another. These are some of the strategies employed by this group of underground female art activists who, for over a decade, have waged war on a Manhattan art world that they describe as "Too male, too stale, too pale and too Yale".

"We were guerillas before we were gorillas," Kahlo's disembodied voice explains from across the Atlantic. "We needed a disguise. You have this angry gorilla image combined with a female body, and women have reason to be angry. So when you see the image, you think of what the Guerilla Girls stand for, which is the self-proclaimed conscience of the art world."

Using words instead of bullets, this secret female hit squad stalks the streets of New York exposing prejudice and double standards by fly-leafing angry posters outside guilty museums and art galleries and turning up en masque at exhibition openings, clad in mini-skirts and stilettos and armed with bunches of bananas for targeted curators, critics and gallery directors.

Their poster-sized newsletter, Hot Flashes, documents discrimination against women and artists of colour and is now available worldwide on the Internet. They have just consolidated their campaign by publishing a book, Confessions of the Guerilla Girls, which records "how a bunch of masked avengers fight sexism and racism in the art world with facts, humor and fake fur".

It is this combination of hard fact and sharp humour that continues to be the Guerilla Girls' most distinctive trademark as well as their most deadly weapon. Their first campaign was launched in the spring of 1985, in response to an exhibition of international contemporary art at New York's Museum of Modern Art which only included 13 women artists out of a line-up of 169. Overnight, a rash of fly-posters covered every surface of the Soho art district. "What do these artists have in common?" one demanded, above a list of 52 leading male art stars, including Francesco Clements, Roy Lichtenstein and Julian Schnabel. Answer: "They allow their work to be shown in galleries that show no more than 10 per cent of women artists or none at all." Another listed the "advantages of being a woman artist" as "working without the pressure of success. Not having to be in shows with men. Not having to choke on those big cigars or paint in Italian suits. Not having to undergo the embarrassment of being called a genius." Each of these mysterious missives was marked "A public message service from the Guerilla Girls / Conscience of the art world".

Since then, the public's conscience has been pricked by more than 50 campaigns which have fired volleys of carefully researched statistics to reveal that sexism and racism continue to be endemic in the art world - and culture at large. As well as the galleries of Manhattan, the Guerilla Girls have produced posters targeting the Gulf war, homelessness and issues surrounding abortion and rape."We want to make Feminism (that "F" word) fashionable again," says Kahlo, "but we also respond to what we see around us - we're fluid, we have no orthodoxy or five-year plan."

It is to avoid the artworld's obsession with personalities that the Guerilla Girls prefer to assume the identities of dead heroines rather than become living ones. "We want the focus to be on the issues, not on individuals." Speculation is rife as to whether certain well-known women artists and curators are among their membership, and it is a testament to their group loyalty and cohesion that in over 10 years no one has broken ranks.

"Operating under code names and alter egos has meant that there are no career gains from being a Guerilla Girl. This makes us all equal, gives each of us an equal voice, no matter what our positions may be in the real world," Kahlo declares, acknowledging that another advantage of anonymity is the freedom to pinpoint powerful members of the art world without incurring any acts of vengeance. "The art world is a very small place."

So has their bombardment of this white male bastion been successful? Certainly what started as a prank has now become a respected force. Museums and libraries worldwide collect entire portfolios of their work and the Guerilla Girls are now in hot demand to make personal appearances - often at institutions that they have previously attacked. In Confessions of the Guerilla Girls they declare: "We've made dealers, curators and critics accountable. And things have even gotten better for women and artists of colour."

The now notorious "Politically Correct" Whitney Biennial exhibition of 1993 seemed to confirm that their protests had directly affected the curatorial policy of America's most important contemporary art showcase. But the make-up of this year's Whitney proved this prognosis to be premature - something the Guerilla Girls were quick to point out with their Spring 1995 campaign which totted-up the kind of art on show under the slogan "Traditional Values and Quality Return to the Whitey (sic) Museum"; and, according to the latest issue of Hot Flashes, the "Guerilla Girls Predict that Museums in the East will have a White Male Winter, and a White Male Spring, Summer and Fall."

And, the Guerilla Girls claim, "it's even worse in Europe". When I point out to Frida Kahlo that in Britain's contemporary art world, women are very well represented both as artists and as gallery directors, she prefers to take a long-term view.

"Let's see what happens to these women over the next 10 years, how their decisions get implemented and whether their work makes top dollar at auction," she advises. "Anyone who has worked in the US civil rights movement knows that exclusion always changes its face every decade. Equality is not something you have to continue to defend. You have to continue to count the numbers and get everyone to keep counting."

n 'Confessions of the Guerilla Girls' is published by Pandora on 10 Jul pounds 9.99

n The Guerilla Girls will be giving talks at the following venues: CCA Glasgow, 13 Jul; ICA London, 14 Jul; The Watershed, Bristol, 15 Jul

n 'Hot Flashes' on The World Wide Web: Guerilla Girls @ Voyagerco. com.

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