This is a story about living up to what you say you believe, showing by your actions, not just by your words. Modeling such behavior is a group of artworld activists identified only by their attention-getting, jokey name – Gorilla Girls. But they are no joke.
There’s nothing funny about artists shunned because of their anatomy or skin color. Since 1985, the Gorilla Girls have been battling sexism and racism in museums and galleries. Their ammunition takes in books, posters, billboards, and masked public appearances. The latter is where their anonymity comes in: they want your focus on artworld problems, not personalities.
As if to demonstrate their focus on sorry situations vs. self-promotion, they canceled a contract with Phaidon Press to publish their story: “Guerilla Girls: The Art of Behaving Badly” because the publishing company owner, Leon Black, had “shady dealings” with Jeffrey Epstein, the convicted sex offender who trafficked in underage girls.
Who breaks a contract with a global publisher of art books over ethics these days? The Gorilla Girls told Hyperallergic, “The top guy was pissed off, telling us no other authors were voicing our concerns.”
Not that turning down a publishing contract was an easy call for these artworld activists. In a statement, they described their project as “our dream Book of all our work from 1985 to today – conceptualized, designed and written by us.” Living up to what they believe, the Gorilla Girls didn’t want their work tainted by even minimal associating with an abuser of underage girls.
This is the same reason the Gorilla Girls call for the Museum of Modern Art to boot Phaidon’s owner from its board of trustees. MoMA is standing fast, and it’s not hard to figure out why. An Artnet report showing that Black donated $40 million to MoMA in 2018 quotes the Gorilla Girls saying that if museums “have to depend on money from the super-rich, they should at least choose board members who make the world a better, not a worse place.”
Ah, the seldom sound of idealism.
This is not to say that the Gorilla Girls are the only stargazers today. The former chairman of the board at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Warren Kanders, was forced to resign his chairmanship when artists spooked him with threats of boycotting the museum. It seems his company Safariland sells tear gas used against migrants on the US-Mexican border.
Activism by artists is a sign of the times. Two years ago,
I noted how French artists tried to push the Louvre to reject oil companies’ funding because the fossil fuel industry was ruining land, sea, and air. To make their point, several artists laid under Theodore Gericault’s “Raft of the Medusa,” the harrowing image of dead and dying sailors on a makeshift life raft after their ship sank. The artists’ performance suggested that planet earth was at sea, too.
Of course, it will take more than lying on a museum floor to change the world. The Gorilla Girls, originally called Guerilla Girls, seem to have a useful strategy – irregular warfare – ambushing museums to do the right thing.
As Guy Adam reported in the Independent in 2009, MoMA grants the Gorilla Girls a broader audience for their concerns, including an exhibition of their posters like the one picturing a nude female by Jean-Auguste Ingres titled La Grande Odalisque under the caption, “Do Women Have to Be Naked To Get Into The Met?”
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This is a story about how to make true what you say you believe by showing up through your actions, not just your words. The model for this behavior is a group of activists in the art world known only by the name of prankster and attention-getter: the Gorilla Girls. But this is no joke.
It’s not nice when artists are rejected because of their anatomy or skin color. The Gorilla Girls have been fighting sexism and racism in museums and galleries since 1985. Their ammunition takes the form of books, posters, billboards and masked public appearances. The latter is their anonymity: they want people to focus on issues in the art world, not personalities.
To demonstrate that they value pathetic situations over self-promotion, they cancelled the contract with Phaidon Press to publish their story, Guerrilla Girls: The Art of Behaving Badly, because the publisher’s owner, Leon Black, had a “dark relationship” with Jeffrey Epstein, a sex offender convicted of trafficking underage girls.
Who breaks a contract with a global publisher of art books on ethics these days? Gorillaz Girls told Hyperallergic, “The boss got angry and said the other authors hadn’t addressed our concerns.
Not that turning down a publishing contract was an easy challenge for these art world activists. In a statement, they described their project as “the book of our dreams, from 1985 to today, conceived, designed and written by us.” The Gorilla Girls did not want their work to be tainted by any association with a rapist of underage girls, because they believed in what they believed.
For the same reason, the Gorilla Girls are demanding that the Museum of Modern Art remove owner Faidon from its board of directors. MoMA is standing firm, and it’s not hard to see why. In an Artnet report showing that Black donated $40 million to MoMA in 2018, Gorilla Girls reportedly said that museums, “if they’re going to depend on super-rich money, they should at least elect board members who make the world a better place, not a worse place.”
A rare sound of idealism.
But that doesn’t mean gorillas are the only stars today. The former president of the Whitney Museum of American Art, Warren Canders, was forced to resign as president when artists threatened to boycott the museum. His company, Safariland, appears to be selling tear gas used against migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Artist activism is a sign of the times. Two years ago,
I have heard French artists ask the Louvre not to fund oil companies because the fossil fuel industry is destroying the land, sea and air. According to history, several artists placed a poignant depiction of dead and dying sailors on a makeshift life raft under Theodore Géricault’s “Raft of the Medusa” after their ship sank. The artists’ depiction implied that planet Earth was also at sea.
A woman’s complaint
Of course, it takes more than lying on the floor of a museum to change the world. The Gorilla Girls, originally called Guerilla Girls, appear to have a useful strategy – unregulated warfare – for ambushing museums into doing the right thing.
As Guy Adam reported in the Independent in 2009, the MMA gives the Gorilla Girls a wider audience to voice their concerns, including by putting up their posters, such as Jean-Auguste Ingres’ nude poster with the caption “Do women have to be naked to enter meetings?
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