In a cultural moment defined by unconscionable treatment of women, we host a round-table discussion with the trailblazing feminist art collective.
Interview by Courtney Kenefick
Photos By Jasdeep Kang
November 28, 2018
The backstory is the stuff of legend.
In 1985, following an acutely male exhibition at MoMA, a group of working artists met to form a women’s collective. They aimed to become “the conscience of the art world,” confronting inequalities both social and economic. The idea of a feminist ensemble was hardly new, but this group added superhero-esque flourishes. They took vows of anonymity, each adapting the name of an artist trivialized by male-centric art history texts. They plastered New York city blocks in posters—satirical, shocking, and beautiful—gonzo PSAs to expose prejudice among curators, collectors, and colleagues. They attended industry functions, confronting the establishment face to face. All the while, they wore ape masks, an ingenious nod to their rebel tactics, vigilante ethos, and affinity for gallows humor.
Hence, the Guerrilla Girls.
In the decades since, the group has expanded, succeeded, splintered, and formed subgroups. (The original Guerrilla Girls; the Broad Band division, which focuses on technology and new multimedia; and Guerrilla Girls on Tour!, a touring theater company.) Still, in concept and in practice, its membership remains a united front, the faces of unexpurgated rage, self-aware and self-assured, humble and humorous, critical and paradoxical. They aren’t just feminists. They are feminism incarnate.
Accordingly, Surface organized a round-table discussion with six members of the Guerrilla Girls, representing several generations and iterations of the group. In a cultural moment defined by unconscionable treatment of women, both within the art world and outside it, we wanted to open the floor for discussion. It seemed vital. Because if you accept that life is more important than art, and that this is what makes art important … well, then the Guerrilla Girls are more important than ever.
Surface: The Guerrilla Girls were established in 1985. What were the conversations that led to the formation of this group?
Gerda Taro: The strategies of the 1970s had not been working. The Miss America pageant never actually had bra burning, but we became known as ‘bra-burning feminists.’ We were angry, we were resentful, we were furious—yelling at each other a lot, because there wasn’t any agreement about what feminism was. So the original concept was something like a union, or a collective bargaining group. The first gang of women, there were notes being taken by one of the members who, instead of spelling the word G-U-E-R-R-I-L-L-A had spelled it G-O-R-I-L-L-A. The idea of being gorillas came up pretty early. We took dead women artists as our names, and started putting posters up in the vagina of the art world, which was West Broadway [in Manhattan]. Hilma can tell you about the postering efforts. We were doing it ourselves in the middle of the night. One of us almost broke her leg stepping in a hole. Then we started hiring men to do our postering, right?
Hilma af Klint: I don’t remember.
Gerda Taro: You don’t remember?
Hilma af Klint: Nope.
Surface: Do you remember postering?
Hilma af Klint: Oh, I remember postering.
Surface: What was that like?
Hilma af Klint: It was anxiety-producing. So we did a few things. I almost never wear a skirt, and back then I probably never did, but we wore skirts. And we thought about what we would say if anybody stopped us. Nobody ever did. We probably only put up twenty or twenty-five posters a night, because [we were] on foot. We didn’t have cars. One person had the paste and the brush, and the other person had the posters, and we’d slap them on.
Gerda Taro: Sometimes there was a lookout. If we were right on West Broadway, there was somebody looking out for security people.
Surface: What was the goal? What did you want to people to see?
Gerda Taro: Well, the first poster was ‘What Do These Artists Have In Common?’ (1985). The tagline was: ‘They allow their work to be shown in galleries that show no more than ten percent women artists or none at all.’ We listed all the names of the men. In the next one, we went after the galleries. Then we went after the museums. Because the rest of the world was changing, but the art world was not improving, or providing opportunities for women.
Surface: What do you think has changed or hasn’t since then?
Gerda Taro: That’s why we’re all here today.
Minnette de Silva: Yes. I mean, a lot has changed. In fact, Hilma has a show at the Guggenheim right now, which is very cool.
Hilma af Klint: Isn’t it interesting that, finally, the spirituality of women isn’t just some froufrou thing? Whereas the spirituality of men has been taken perfectly seriously all these years, when we were studying art history.
Minnette de Silva: But you’re kind of mainstream now, Hilma. Or at least there’s been a great period of recuperating women artists, over the past five years or so. However, the things that apply to women in the rest of the world also apply in the art world. Things you’re made to feel you have to do in order to succeed. Art school is a notorious setting for sexual assault, sexual repression. There was an amazing show called ‘The Un-Heroic Act’ at John Jay College [of Criminal Justice, in New York] which we’re quite involved in.
Alla Horska: The rate at which women are sexually assaulted, unfortunately, that’s an issue we have to address, through art and other means. I’m a newer member of the group, [part of] a younger generation, and there’s a wealth of information and activist strategies that I’ve benefited from. We had the idea to share it with even younger audiences. We developed an anti-rape poster workshop program for college students. We helped Emma Sulkowicz with ‘Carry That Weight.’ There’s so much national attention about the rate of sexual assault on U.S. campuses—which, by the way, is actually higher than what’s been reported among schools that were violating Title XI policies. We ended up working on the poster workshop after ‘Carry That Weight.’ [The students] had gone through traditional means, done the bureaucracy, and it still wasn’t working. We brought an artistic, cathartic alternative—a different approach. Our communication strategy is typically different, because we employ humor. It was a great platform to share concerns in a more informal setting.
Gerda Taro: We’ve done the anti-rape poster workshops in multiple campuses. They’re always so different.
Alla Horska: We don’t assert a Guerrilla Girls prerogative. That’s really important. We just want to give the structure of a poster. What it says reflects the spirit and concerns of that school and its students, specifically. Some are about policy, some are just basic knowledge. The one we did at John Jay is more reflective of listening to women and identifying predators. That’s a direct result of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and the Kavanaugh hearings.
Surface: You mention humor, which has been a tactic for Guerrilla Girls since the beginning. But making fun of rich, white art collectors is different than talking about rape. How do you reconcile that?
Aphra Behn: Some things aren’t funny. Some things, you can’t use humor. You have to pick and choose. When you can use it, I think you should. But I think that the Guerrilla Girls tackling some of these serious issues, it was inevitable.
Gerda Taro: Right. The rape poster that’s on view at John Jay says: ‘If you’ve been raped, you may as well relax and enjoy it because no one will believe you.’ That poster was done in 1992. Nothing has changed.
Minnette de Silva: We did a lot of work around abortion rights. We really struggle to think of ways to be satirical. But it did seem important to do a send-up of the Christian establishment, the anti-abortion establishment, its violence, its tactics.
Alla Horska: Our first poster workshop was at Stone Hill college. We got barred and then reinstated, and barred again.
Minnette de Silva: It’s Catholic.
Alla Horska: It’s a Catholic school, and they were worried that bringing us to campus would conflict with the school’s ethics. There were protests by faculty, a letter to the dean from us, a lot of back and forth. We emphasized that [rape] is an outstanding issue that was too important to bypass. I think one thing that resonates between when we started the group and now—well, perhaps sometimes the tactics have changed, as technology is a huge thing now—but I think this group provides comfort. There’s an ally who has already gone through what you’re experiencing at this moment, who has the experience, and who can relate. It’s comforting for students and our collaborators to know that we’re here for them.
Gerda Taro: So are you saying that nothing has changed?
Alejandra Pizarnik: We are all experiencing this as women, right? We see big progress, and we feel optimistic about change. Then, all of a sudden, we wake up in the middle of a nightmare and realize, Wow, everything is the same, and there is a viciousness out there that still seems alive. Therefore, the meaning of this group is still relevant, still needed. It’s painfully funny—and painfully unfunny—how this group is still fighting the same fight. It’s just changing to be in tune with the times. But the main messages are the same.
Hilma af Klint: Right, but I don’t think that means nothing has changed. Some of the first things we did were about getting people to look at themselves. We’re still asking people to look at themselves, but at the university where I teach, what happens between male and female students is completely different than it was even fifteen years ago.
Gerda Taro: Really?
Hilma af Klint: Yeah. The dynamics across race, sex, and class—there are all these real art friendships. It’s not that the guys only talk to the guys, like in the past. It doesn’t happen quickly, but I do think it changes.
Gerda Taro: There have been one-woman shows in museums. It’s starting to actually happen.
Hilma af Klint: And the things said about them are fantastic, and relevant, and appreciative. You don’t have to die like Eva Hesse anymore.
Alejandra Pizarnik: I still think the numbers are bad. You go to colleges, you see art departments full of female students. You go to grant training sessions, and most of the people applying are women, you go to museums and a lot of educators are women. Then you go to the high end of the art chain. That remains mostly populated by men.
Hilma af Klint: By white men.
Alejandra Pizarnik: Yeah, there is a discrepancy. Although there are wonderful shows, like the anti-rape shows, there still seems to be certain institutions saying, ‘Okay, we need to have a feminist show. Let’s book it.’
Surface: Like it’s shoehorned in?
Alejandra Pizarnik: Like a quota. Obviously we welcome shows, but it seems to be like the ‘right thing’ to do more than the natural thing to do. Also commercial galleries and high-profile museums are still—
Minnette de SIlva: If you look at the numbers, the commercial value of works by people of color, by women—at least, as compared to white men’s work—is still way out.
Alejandra Pizarnik: There is a huge gap. Go to the auctions. The numbers don’t reflect all the students that are treating each other much better.
Hilma af Klint: I think it’s much more difficult now. In the beginning, the stats were very bleak. Zero women are in this gallery, and zero women are in this museum. Now art institutions, galleries, museums, theaters—they have their one slot, and they say, ‘Look, we’re not sexist or discriminatory! We did one show by a woman last year!’ That’s the staff slipping under the woodwork by saying, ‘This proves that we support women and artists of color.’
Gerda Taro: But we have trained our critic, Jerry Saltz, to look at the percentages of women in the reinstallation of the Museum of Modern Art. I think it is no longer possible to do an all-white, all-male show. The art critics would pounce.
Aphra Behn: Yeah, we take full credit for that.
Surface: Can we talk about how you trained major art critics?
Aphra Behn: It really, really felt like we were alone in the beginning. Like we were the only people talking about the art world being discriminatory. Now there are a lot of other organizations—especially in the theater—addressing sexism. Having that support, having more than just one voice, helps in educating, in putting pressure on.
Alla Horska: I would add, from a contemporary standpoint, that we try to practice what we preach. We talk a lot about intersectional feminism, how it’s not just about women anymore. It’s about gender non-conforming and non-binary. We’ve been talking recently in meetings about, well, that feminism now includes men. How can we be inclusive in these ways? You’re always advocating for more diversity racially within the group. Thinking in terms of who’s been neglected, who deserves to be represented. If we have that within the group, we’re hoping it starts to permeate more in the projects we develop.
Minnette de Silva: Historically, and right now, we look very white. The wider network doesn’t look like this. But what can you do? These seven people are here today. That’s something we’ve tangled with a lot. If you look at those early Guerrilla Girls posters, they constantly say ‘women of color are not represented in these galleries’ and ‘women in general are not represented.’ They try. Nonetheless, they were often charged with being too white. But that was part of the development of the whole feminist movement. With the new iteration of Guerrilla Girls, I think there’s been a baseline—that we would be diverse, and address those issues now.
Hilma af Klint: I feel like I am following Beyoncé and the #MeToo Movement into contemporary feminism. I remember, in 2014, when Beyoncé had ‘FEMINIST’ [in the stage backdrop] on MTV—
Hilma af Klint: Yeah. It was night and day. All of the sudden, all these young people, college students, were talking about feminism in a positive way again. During my life, I’ve seen it be positive, be negative, be positive, be negative. Like, I’m a feminist. How is it going to be this week? I feel like I’m in contemporary feminism. I am extremely happily following the African American women leaders of the current movement.
Gerda Taro: You also have Donald Trump to thank for galvanizing an entire generation of young women who, just ten years ago, called themselves post-feminists. Now they’re calling themselves feminists.
Surface: The Guerrilla Girls have been a part of multiple waves of feminism. Has the reception ebbed and flowed? Or has the group always transcended that?
Minnette de Silva: I think surely it has ebbed. Gerda, you have much longer vision on this than me.
Gerda Taro: Only flows. We only flow.
Surface: Good answer.
Alla Horska: It’s always been a revered group. I’ve never felt dips within that community.
Minnette de Silva: Just this week, we got an email from eighth-graders in Denver: ‘We’re studying you, we’re going to enter a competition, our project is about you, can we talk to you?’
Alejandra Pizarnik: The Women’s March last year, when we were walking with the masks—there were people looking at us like we were stars. Because it’s this mythological appearance. That’s quite gratifying. On the other hand, I feel that feminism, when it comes to personal practice, is always a tricky term. We all are producing work that is somehow related to—or informed by—our feminism. But there are curators or art collectors or museum directors who label you a feminist. Not as a way of praise, but to label you out of the art word, almost like you are a sub-channel.
Surface: You can’t change that label.
Alejandra Pizarnik: A label to justify. That’s my problem today, when it’s a tactic to force you into obscurity. ‘Okay, we are having the feminist show of the decade in the basement, so you are invited.’
Surface: If you don’t tell these stories, the narrative belongs to who’s in power.
Minnette de Silva: We’re in this terrible moment right now. We can’t ignore it. So I think cultural workers of all sorts are waking up. Maybe things were better for a bit, but now this is very, very dark. The white male entitlement wanting to put down women, to use racist terms, completely, unabashedly. We have to reference the power structure, and talk about how it never went away. Maybe it was challenged, and so it shut up. It’s white America. Let’s be very clear: Statistically, it’s white women in America, unfortunately, not just [men]. It’s very shocking to take in.
Aphra Behn: I’ve been doing this for twenty-one years. At the beginning, people would always ask, ‘Are you saying the work of white men should go away?’ Now we’re back to that fear. People think if everyone has a place at the table, it means white men must disappear. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about reflecting the world, and the world is not just white. This fear-mongering that if we promote women, it means we’re not promoting white men—it’s just a fallacy. It has not changed, and now it’s come back more than ever, this reverse sexism concept. That is very, very frustrating. Go into the middle of America. The reality hits you: Wow, we still have a lot of work to do.
Hilma af Klint: One of the ironies is that white men suggest they can’t compete on an even playing field. You know, that would be a fun poster: ‘Don’t underestimate yourselves.’ Maybe we should do a white male workshop. When the white nationalists marched in Charlottesville saying, ‘You will not replace us,’ I thought, Wow, what an incredibly psychologically revealing thing to say. If you think you can actually compete fairly with everyone else…
Minnette de Silva: But, Hilma, that’s naïve. Because the history of the Western world is patriarchy. I think it has to do with a serious turning of the table in the other direction. Hatred of women, [which relates to] hatred of people of color, has gone on too long. It’s time it was squashed.
Hilma af Klint: We’ll know there’s an even playing field when art shows end up being all-women accidentally, right? If we had an even playing field…
Minnette de Silva: There’s not going to be an even playing field. It’s naïve to even imagine it.
Gerda Taro: This gives you an idea of what our meetings are like.
Minnette de Silva: Women who are trying to migrate here through Mexico are murdered—
Hilma af Klint: Oh, I know.
Minnette de Silva: There’s nothing—
Hilma af Klint: Okay, so you think that there can never be an even playing field. So, basically, we need to be in the position of white men, and they need to be in the position of people of color?
Minnette de Silva: It’s not a question of just tit for tat. It’s just an ongoing struggle. There isn’t necessarily an end game, this utopia you’re talking about. If you only—
Alla Horska: Isn’t that the goal of feminism though?
Minnette de Silva: Utopia? Well, yes, you need to have an imaginary goal. I agree.
Alla Horska: It’s not imaginary.
Alejandra Pizarnik: For an even playing field, it’s going to take at least two or three generations. But I don’t think we should not dream. It may not be our parents, it may not be us. That’s why we go to these colleges. Hopefully, future generations create a more equal world, where we don’t have to be labeled, and [succeed] just because our art deserves it. I am very pessimistic in general, but that’s not the way to change the world. You somehow need to put pessimism behind you, and act like you are not going bury these problems.
Surface: When you talk about injustice as a whole, it sounds overwhelming. But when you focus—on the art, world for example—it seems like perhaps it is a little more achievable.
Alejandra Pizarnik: That was the wonderful thing about the beginning of the Guerrilla Girls. The world we decided to fight was small. It wasn’t about the big issues of the universe. It was a very specific field. The Guerrilla Girls were trying to ask the right questions—not necessarily getting the changes, but at least asking questions that hurt, or were just too difficult to answer.
Hilma af Klint: To win fights, you have to be in fights. It’s a long fight.
Alla Horska: So it’s not that all of this is not for nothing. Gerda and I were talking last night about being an artist and a mother, and for her generation it was—
Gerda Taro: Risky business.
Alla Horska: Risky business. For my generation, it’s less risky. It still [means] running the risk of being discriminated against, by other artists or others, but I benefit from the hard work that earlier generations did. So it has changed. We’re all going to have different opinions as to whether or not that’s a huge gain or small gain, and whether or not it’s worth it. But there have been gains. I have no disillusionment—I still have to work very hard as a mother and an artist to make sure I get respect, both as a person and in my career. But knowing the work other artists in my position have done already gives me fortitude, and knowledge of how to pick up the torch in that sense.
Surface: How do you resolve these conversations during your meetings?
Gerda Taro: It takes a long time.
Alejandra Pizarnik: We have arguments. Of course we have disagreements. Working in a collective, you have to be humble. Part of the process is [understanding] that your personal idea is not necessarily going to survive to the end. That in itself is wonderful training for creating a more just world. Just that. Every human should start a collective as a way to train.
Surface: How do you collectively create a visual identity? When I see something from Guerrilla Girls, I can immediately recognize it, either through the messaging or the aesthetics.
Minnette de Silva: The approach, from early on, was very conscious about design as a medium, and as a political tool…
Gerda Taro: …and using the tricks of advertising against advertising itself. One approach that has worked very well is irony. Straight up irony. ‘The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist’  being our most famous poster, we recently came up with a new poster: ‘The Advantages of Being an Older Woman Artist’ .
Aphra Behn: It’s also consensus. Technically speaking, we worked a lot in subgroups, smaller groups, because it’s easier to flesh out ideas to present to the larger group. We did do some majority rule.
Gerda Taro: There’s a poster that never made it to the street. It got printed and everything, but it used images of knives. Alice Neel, one of the [earliest] Guerrilla Girls said that violence comes back to hurt women, and we shouldn’t really be telling men to chop off their penises. [Laughs] We never postered it.
Surface: Through the years, have you gone back and forth about who you should be as a collective?
Alejandra Pizarnik: You need to reinvent yourselves to remain alive, as a group. Even the logistics of it. Some members, because of their personal lives, are more or less active depending on the time. We need to navigate what it means for the group to keep going. In a way, you have to let go. I was not as active during one period. During that time, the ones who were able to be present were the ones leading.
Aphra Behn: It takes a lot of energy. There’s a lot of expectation, too, for us to do stuff. People always ask, ‘Why don’t you help women in music? Why don’t you help women in film? Why don’t you help stage managers?’ We can’t do everything. We try to say, ‘Let’s help you do that.’ If we have passions about specific issues, those are the issues we tend to argue about, and navigate toward. But people come and go. It takes a lot of energy to do this. You really have to come with an open mind and willingness to collaborate.
Surface: Have you ever discussed taking the masks off?
Minnette de Silva: [The masks are] a pretty important, consistent principle. And taking the names of dead women artists. It seems obvious now, but that was a very important move. If you cease to be anonymous, that whole piece would go away […] Some of us are known, some are not. But the idea of anonymity, the removal of the individual artist ego from the equation—it’s important. [When the Guerrilla Girls were formed], there was a lot of anxiety about speaking out. It might mess up your career, and people have self preservation in mind. I don’t think we feel that now.
Aphra Behn: Some of us don’t care anymore.
Minnette de Silva: We don’t care. But the principle of raising up role models—in my case, Minnette de Silva, an architect from Sri Lanka, who was from my background in architecture, which is a very white male field—it seemed incredibly important to find these role models and also rescue them from oblivion, especially in a new internet age. You can actually [positively] influence their search results, which we’ve tried to do. But it’s not the absolute anonymity or secrecy that matters. It’s the principle.
Alejandra Pizarnik: You’re advocating. I am Alejandra Pizarnick, a poet, pretty famous in Argentina. But I don’t think anyone in the United States knows about her. So I am, just by adopting her name, already doing a service to at least one woman, right? The idea that we remember each other, that we are our best keeper of our legacy [is important].
Gerda Taro: In the early days, nobody would pick up the phone. But if ‘Frida Kahlo’ was calling…
Aphra Behn: It is a great tactic. Personally, sometimes it becomes very frustrating, because it’s like, Geez, I have to be ‘Aphra Behn’ in order for anybody to pay any attention to what I’m saying. That’s frustrating.
Alla Horska: I would just add, to go back a little bit, that being an outspoken woman artist, about sexism, racism, anything—the repercussions are probably less today than when the group formed. But the anonymity stresses the group, the mission of the group, and that’s rooted in the self.
Minnette de Silva: It’s the tussle between each of us needing to have our own career and how to do that.
Gerda Taro: That was true from the beginning, and it’s true today. It’s not about my personal feelings, or your personal career.
Surface: But you might not get recognition for the work that you’re doing.
Hilma af Klint: That’s also liberating, in some ways.
Gerda Taro: In other words, what happens when the Guerrilla Girls are in the Tate or the Venice Biennale? Everybody feels pretty good.
Minnette de Silva: It’s a bit contradictory though, isn’t it? Part of the mission is struggling from the outside, and now the name and the reputation have a huge influence. But also now anyone coming through art school can have a collective art practice, right? You couldn’t really before, and political art practice was frowned upon. So those things have a ripple effects for everybody. It is a source of pride, right?
Gerda Taro: Yes.
Surface: Last question, before we wrap up here: What are the Guerrilla Girls taking on next?
Minnette de Silva: Well, there’s a funding issue. That’s one of those complicated things. Some of the [existing] work produces money for funding new work, which is very exciting, when that happens.
Alla Horska: We’re trying to further develop this anti-rape poster program. Unfortunately, the issue keeps on getting bigger. There’s so much potential in working with students, teaching the next generation how to be activists, and giving them a platform, to show that it’s safe to speak their mind. The things they have to say are important.
Minnette de Silva: I think we’re going to need to pursue these issues. Now it’s been clearly stated that somebody who’s associated with sexual assault, and has a well known anti-abortion stances, can ascend to the top position of power. The connections between those things need to be clarified even more. It’s urgent for the next generation to see it.
Aphra Behn: The members interested in theater are always developing performances. We have a show about the history of women and food, history of women and theater. Who knows, feminists and the musical might be next…
Alejandra Pizarnik: We also are thinking about what it means to get older, as an artist and feminist. Some of us are experiencing another way of being discriminated against, right? We remain active, and fighting for women’s rights, and specifically for artists, female artists, as they grow old, for as long as the men get the retrospective.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. It features members of the Guerrilla Girls BroadBand and Guerrilla Girls On Tour!; the original Guerrilla Girls remain active, launching new projects and making appearances all over the world. Learn more here.