I knew that something special was taking place at the Montserrat College of Art when, for the first time in my life, I felt comfortable enough to come out to a group of strangers, which included two women clad in black and donning terrifying yet somehow inviting gorilla masks.
It was a small room filled with passion, with rage, with people brimming over with an urge to change the world. The personal was undoubtedly tied to the political with the bonds of lived experience. As each person gave a brief introduction, it became clear that I was in a space that was incredibly special, a space that can act as a model for student activism today, when it so desperately needed.
The two women presiding over this silently abuzz atmosphere were two of the most innovative and visible, though ever-disguised, figureheads of both feminism and art history – Frida Kahlo and Käthe Kollwitz of the Guerrilla Girls, a feminist collective that exploded onto the art scene in 1985 with their protest of the male-dominated exhibition An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Ever since, they have masked their identities with pseudonyms drawn from the wealth of accomplished female artists throughout history, as well as with layers of fur that is faux only in its chemical makeup. These masks are symbols that have only grown in potency. The Guerrilla Girls continue to tour across the world with ferocity, bringing their message of female empowerment wherever they go.
They were there to offer their expertise to a host of eager students who hoped to produce a tangible object of protest. In the words of Frida Kahlo, we were all there to change “things that male minds over the centuries have said about women,” especially the historical legitimization of “ownership of [the female] body.” In this political climate, wherein the rights of women sit precariously on the edge of a knife, these words could not be any timelier. As Frida and Käthe reminded us, however, “you don’t have to do too much to make a point.”
Instead, just “get a seed started” and watch it grow into a beautifully subversive entity.
Montserrat, an arts college located in the beautiful town of Beverly, Massachusetts, invited the Guerrilla Girls to accompany the traveling exhibition Not Ready to Make Nice: Guerrilla Girls in the Art World and Beyond, as well as a companion symposium, Agents of Change: Art as Activism. However, the event moved beyond academia with the Guerrilla Girls’ early morning workshop to support participants in starting their own grassroots feminist projects that utilize the arts as an explosive force in the face of unthinkable inequities.
Frida and Käthe asked everyone to discuss a few personally relevant issues around which they would like to design an act of culture-jamming.Everyone came with a story, a potent and inspiring reason for seeking the guidance of the art world’s masked avengers. Frida and Käthe listened intently, reminding each person that every struggle is equally worthy of discussion, and, eventually, illustration in the public sphere.
As people delved into their work in groups based on similar interests, ranging from rape culture to youth education to societal expectations of women, the twosome offered tangible advice for anyone hoping to follow the Guerrilla Girls’ example. Käthe reminded us that one of the best methods of engendering lasting change is to “use standard forms and pervert them,” especially “official college announcements and brochures,” prime fodder for parody and interrogation.
As one can see in the public art of the Guerrilla Girls, especially their recent co-opting of Michelle Bachmann’s own words in her home state, this method has immense power to both shock and invite productive inquiry. Finally, never editorialize, and allow the viewer to come to hir own conclusions about the irony in the imagery and its meaning on both individual and societal levels.
I floated from group to group in order to see how each art piece matured throughout the brainstorming process. Each was egalitarian and brimming with personal stories and unbridled ideas, all of which were facilitated by Frida and Käthe, whose encouragement to find “kernels and beginnings” resulted in outstanding examples of student activism in the making. As each poster, comic, meme, or drawing was posted around the room, I realized that this was more than an isolated exercise.
With campaigns telling us that all we need to do is vote, an important, though anonymous means of political involvement, it is easy to forget the power inherent in something as simple as a pamphlet or a poster. Arts-based activism encapsulates a transformative process of collaboration, of sisterhood or brotherhood, of a multiplicity of shared fears and hopes that have the ability to puncture unthinking psyches with life-changing facts that are as amusing as they are deadly serious.
For example, the students who created Middle School Dictionary proceeded to make copies of their pamphlet for distribution after the workshop. It was a simple act, but I know that my copy will always hang on my wall as a reminder and a call to action.
(Excerpt from Middle School Dictionary by Suzy Evans, Sarah Maeder, and Elizabeth Sultzer. Reproduced with permission of the artists.)
Some might call me naïve, or say that what I witnessed were simply remnants of the naïveté of a long-gone feminist urge for collectivity. However, this exercise was nothing short of revolutionary. Turn on the news; listen to the radio. We need a revolution.
Not Ready to Make Nice: Guerrilla Girls in the Art World and Beyond will be on view at the Montserrat College of Art until December 15, 2012.
The author would like thank Ms. Leonie Bradbury, curator of the Montserrat Art Galleries, Maggie Cavallo, Assistant Curator of Education, and the Guerrilla Girls, for their support, kindness, and generosity, in addition to the workshop participants, whose projects will change the world. All images are reproduced with the permission of the Guerrilla Girls.
Will Simmons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or followed on Twitter.