When Outrage Makes Inroads: The Guerrilla Girls in Conversation with Yng-Ru Chen @ Brookline Booksmith

Yng-Ru Chen, founder and CEO of Boston’s new Praise Shadows Art Gallery, acknowledges that a global pandemic is an intimidating environment for new ventures. Chen describes Praise Shadows as a “labor of love,” a project emerging onto a Boston arts scene that, though flourishing on many levels, is experiencing frailties it had yet to contend with or acknowledge previously. The gallery’s namesake, Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, is an exploration of the aesthetic and symbolic power of light and darkness. Chen emphasized one quote in particular: “We find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates… Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.” 

“We founded this gallery from within the shadows of the pandemic and social turmoil,” she writes. “There is, and will always, be beauty.⁠”

Praise Shadows is a commercial exhibition space grounded deeply in community, with an emphasis on access and mentorship. “We are here to serve the art lovers of Boston, the artistic community worldwide, and the artists who give us so much,” explains Chen in promotional materials for the gallery.⁠ In keeping with Praise Shadows’ ethos, the gallery is marking its debut in conversation with the Guerrilla Girls, whose mordant wit has blown open the art world since their founding in 1985. 

In collaboration with Brookline Booksmith, a community staple that Chen has been frequenting since childhood, Praise Shadows hosted a panel discussion on November 23rd with two members of the Guerrilla Girls to mark the publication of their first comprehensive retrospective: Guerrilla Girls: The Art of Behaving Badly. The anonymous, art activist collective set its sights on the art world in 1985, and has been needling its ribs ever since. Each member of the Guerrilla Girls wears a gorilla mask in public so as to obscure their identity, and each has chosen a pseudonym to retain that anonymity—the name of a famous female artist. Present at the discussion on November 23rd were members “Frida Kahlo” and “Käthe Kollwitz.” 

Yng-Ru Chen with Guerrilla Girl Zubeida Agha in 2018. Photo by Natasha Janardan. Image courtesy of Praise Shadows.  

“There’s no lack of fantastic, incredible artists out there,” says Kollwitz. “The world of artists is great, but the art world sucks.” 

The cover of the Guerrilla Girls’ newest book, Guerrilla Girls: The Art of Behaving Badly. Image courtesy of Chronicle Books.

Frida Kahlo added to Kollwitz’s wry assessment: “The art world in 1985 […] was always interesting, but it was really one-sided. You started to think: where are the women’s voices? Where are the voices of people of color? They weren’t there. There were big holes in the art world and the gatekeepers were a compendium of critics […] with collectors as the driving force. They weren’t thinking about how the entire story of our culture was being told.”

In a project that swept the nation, the Guerrilla Girls decided to count the number of nude female bodies versus nude male bodies displayed in portraiture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to accentuate what Kahlo describes as the overwhelming “hetero-maleness” of the art world in the late 80s and early 90s. What emerged from this endeavor is the now-famous piece Naked

The Guerrilla Girls, Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum? (1989), screenprint on paper. Image courtesy of Tate.

Kahlo and Kollwitz explain that Naked was originally intended to be a billboard for the Public Art Fund. After it was rejected due to its “graphic” nature, the Guerrilla Girls ran it on buses all across New York. It is this kind of provocative performance that put the Guerrilla Girls on the map. Now, a screenprint of the original poster is part of the Tate collection.

Image from Bitches, Bimbos and Ballbreakers: the Guerrilla Girls’ Illustrated Guide to Female Stereotypes, 2003. Image courtesy of guerrillagirls.com

Projects like Naked represent the norm-shattering strategies of the group, and the power of engaging the upper crust of the artworld in repartee. As they note in their 2016 video “The Guerrilla Girls’ Guide to Behaving Badly“: “BE CRAZY. Political art or activism that points to something and says ‘this is bad’ is just preaching to the converted. Instead, try to change people’s minds and do it in some unforgettable way.”

“We could have done a poster that just said: ‘there aren’t enough women in the Met.’, but then we wouldn’t be here talking about it today,” says Kollwitz. “Once you see this poster, I dare you to go into any museum in the world and not think: what is on the walls and why?”

Later in the discussion, when Chen emphasizes the humor that has become a cornerstone of the Guerrilla Girls’ acerbic dressing-down of the art world, Kahlo is quick to point out: “humor is different from being funny.” 

“Humor has always been a weapon of the disadvantaged against those who oppress them,” she adds. “I think that is a great power, and it tells the truth. Humor can reveal all kinds of truths in a very direct way.”

The group’s tenets of anonymity and bodily occupation as minorities in majority white, male spaces hold a new kind of significance in 2020. Kollwitz adds: “When we began, the system wouldn’t accept radical art or political art; there were gender issues, race issues, and so much prejudice. So, young artists were just going into the streets and doing their own thing. We loved that. We decided we were going to make that the basis of our work—don’t wait for the gatekeepers to grant access. Get out there.”

Despite their condemnation of “gatekeeping” within the art world, Kollwitz and Kahlo, both white women, have received criticism for fostering a group hierarchy that excluded women of color and compelled them to split from the original group. As Art History Professor Anna C. Chave points out in her 2011 essay “The Guerrilla Girls’ Reckoning“, the group’s racial breakdown has been a point of contention since their founding by white artists. “While the Guerrilla Girls started keeping periodic tabs on statistics pertaining to racial, as well as gender discrimination in the art world,” writes Chave, “they staunchly, and problematically, resisted being surveyed as to the make-up of their own membership.” It is important to note, as Chave does, that this particular account is disputed by one African-American member, who uses the alias Alma Thomas, as she cites her participation from the group’s inception.

Chave continues: “Because of the group’s costumes—whose racial valences proved predictably offensive, to Thomas for one (‘I would have preferred pink ski masks’)— it can be difficult to discern the ethnicity of members in photographs. Though some members of color recount having been asked often to pose for publicity photos […] the photographed Girls generally appear to be white, in keeping with the group’s predominant ethnic make-up.” This assessment by Chave, and its inclusion in this article, is not to malign the Guerrilla Girls, but rather to point out that it would be in keeping with their methods to turn their own critical gaze onto themselves.

Guerrilla Girls, “3 Ways To Write A Museum Wall Label When The Artist Is A Sexual Predator” (2018). Image courtesy of guerrillagirls.com

As some are quick to point out, the Guerrilla Girls have grown their audience exponentially since 1985, and their works critiquing institutions like the Whitney, Tate, and MoMA now hang in those same hallowed halls. Chave writes: “Critic Suzi Gablik kept pressing a pair of ‘Guerrilla Girls’ during a 1994 interview as to whether they might not wish to change the art world rather than simply to demand fuller participation within it.” Chave recounts that one of the pair, going by “Guerrilla Girl 1,” clarified that the group’s focus was more on “‘access […] that’s our attitude about change, as opposed to breaking down the system.'”

This kind of specification, which might chafe against the discussions later generations of feminists and activists are having today, is unsurprising given the temperature of the art world and the public scene onto which the Guerrilla Girls emerged.

Today, Kahlo and Kollwitz continue to push back against criticism of their access-focused efforts, arguing that this kind of visibility allows them to do their work more effectively. They argue that amicable discourse is the surest way to wield influence: “If you can get people who disagree with you to laugh at an issue,” they say in their 2016 video, “you have a hook right into their brain. Once there, you have a much better chance to convert them.”

Chen seems to agree—having built up Praise Shadows with the support of friends and colleagues, she believes in a sense of true, supportive community: “partnerships in the community are how we thrive and how we survive.” Her choice to underscore communal discourse demonstrates how much we are all hoping for continued and lasting dialogue around the issues writ large in the midst of the pandemic, and those that will undoubtedly follow.

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