Why you need to go and see the Guerrilla Girls exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery

I began this term by taking part in my College’s telephone campaign. In the middle of a Monday evening shift, after a series of voicemails and call-back-laters, I had the surprise privilege of speaking to a feminist activist from the 1970s.

‘I’m not sure how interested you are in feminism’, she said, before recounting how she had put her career as a history professor on hold to join a feminist cooperative in London. Over the course of forty-five minutes, she shared with me her conception of feminism, particularly stressing the importance of female solidarity. Remarkably, this retired academic told me that ‘Angelina Jolie’s feminism is good because she fights for others – other celebrities use feminism for themselves’. Has feminism indeed been appropriated for selfish means, a tool for securing a few more thousand social media followers rather than a collective struggle for equality?

In a world where some sisters do seem to be literally ‘doing it for themselves’, the current Guerrilla Girls’ exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery is an important reminder that girl power is alive, kicking and ready to complete the fight for equality.

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The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist, Guerrilla Girls, 1988

You might have come across the Guerrilla Girls’ work Advantages of Being a Woman Artist in the foyer of Murray Edwards, a keystone in the college’s collection of works by women artists – the largest in Europe. With their signature typeface of bold, capital letters, the artists literally spell out in black and white the endemic discrimination against female artists: ‘Advantages of Being a Woman Artist: Working without the pressure of success’.

Having replicated this format for billboards in New York and Bilbao, the Guerrilla Girls have now pinned an enormous banner to Aldgate East tube station, announcing: ‘The Guerrilla Girls asked 383 European museums about diversity. Only ¼ responded. Come inside and see why’.

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Image courtesy of the Whitechapel Gallery.

A look inside the exhibition, which displays responses to the Guerrilla Girls’ diversity questionnaire, is no less assaulting. Beneath the fun and the jest, as they spell out the name of every unresponsive museum and kunsthalle on the gallery floor and invite the viewer to step all over them, is a series of facts and figures that are downright upsetting. According to the Guerrilla Girls’ findings, only two European museums have forty percent or more women artists in their collection. When asked how many exhibitions they had held by gender non-conforming artists, nine institutions said none and thirty ‘couldn’t or wouldn’t answer’. By combining outrageous visuals with this shocking content, the Guerrilla Girls make you thoroughly enraged at the male bias that still persists in the art world and elsewhere.

But they also inspire you to take action. Despite their enviablycool allure, the Guerrilla Girls are also the everywoman. Wearing gorilla masks and hairy gloves, they adopt the names of deceased female artists such as Frida Kahlo to remain anonymous. The group hasn’t always comprised the same members: since their formation in 1985, over fifty-five female artists have represented them, some for weeks and some for decades.

The Guerrilla Girls have dismantled the lofty pedestal of The Artist by exposing their own shortcomings: one poster at the Whitechapel exhibition is headed ‘Complaints Department’ and lists the criticisms levied against them. A Slovenian organisation complained that the PDF version of the questionnaire did not accept any letters outside the English alphabet, which ‘seems to confirm the dominance of Anglo-Saxon culture, which is quite peculiar in your case’.

In their fully flawed glory, the Guerrilla Girls appeal to women everywhere. They evoke the spirit of solidarity and partnership that my telephone partner was so nostalgic for, extending their furry hands out to everyone they encounter. Their email address is plastered all over the exhibition walls, and their website tells you when and where you can hear them speak in person. It is therefore fitting that the final image at the Whitechapel is a customary Guerrilla Girls canvas foregrounded by hundreds of women wearing gorilla masks. The message is clear: equality depends on us all getting our paws dirty.

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Is it even worse in Europe? Guerrilla Girls, 2016

The Guerilla Girls’ exhibition, ‘Is it even worse in Europe’ is on at the Whitechapel Gallery until 5th March 2017.

Words by Alina Khakoo

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