Culture & Conversation

Masked Female Avengers Hit Back

“One hundred women are not worth a single testicle.” – Confucius

This epithet, along with about a dozen others, is part of a 2009 poster created by the Guerrilla Girls that focuses on the history of hate speech against women and feminism, and includes quips from the likes of Frank Sinatra, Napoleon and Picasso. The poster is on display at the Troubler le repos/Disturbing the Peace exhibit at the Galerie de l’UQAM.

More than 2,500 of these posters will be displayed in public spaces and institutions around Montreal. The artwork commemorates the 20th anniversary of the l’École Polytechnique massacre, where a man who claimed to be “fighting feminism” entered the school and shot 28 people, killing 14 women. The poster underscores the pervasiveness of misogyny and the need to take the problem seriously.

The exhibit comprises one video installation and 19 posters that span the collective’s 24 years of on-going activism. The Guerrilla Girls is a cooperative group of feminists and artists who adopt the pseudonyms of dead female artists (except for the member who goes by the name GG1), wear gorilla masks and expose the sexism and racism that are endemic to politics and the art world by using humourous and poignant culture jamming tactics.

For example, Homeland Terror Alert System for Women (2003) satirizes the colour-coded scheme the Bush administration invented to track the threat of terrorism in the US. The chart has been transformed into a list of things the government has done to erode women’s rights, including the president’s refusal to sign the international treaty on discrimination against women and the appointment of a man to the FDA who believes that prayer is the best treatment for PMS.

Their poster Do Women Have to be Naked to Get Into the Met. Museum? (1989) targeted the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, highlighting the gross under-representation of female artists in its collection. “Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.” In 2005, they updated the poster’s facts to reveal that even less women artists (3%) are now found in the Met’s Modern Art sections.

Guerrilla Girls’ Pop Quiz (1990) asks: “Q. If February is Black History Month and March is Women’s History Month, what happens the rest of the year? A. Discrimination.” The group claims that assigning commemorative months to social issues is a new form of tokenism, a ploy that merely gives the illusion of inclusive practices. “This poster is a favourite on university campuses where African Americans and women always get art shows in February and March.”

These masked female avengers are not just playing a numbers game; they want substantive equality. By pointing out the large disparities in representation and the problematic attitudes of government and popular culture, the Guerrilla Girls are demonstrating that discrimination is still very much a systemic problem, even in the arts.

They call themselves the Conscience of the Art World and they’ll admit to how pretentious that is, but as they point out, every profession needs to examine itself. And if art institutions won’t do it themselves, then the Guerrillas will do it for them.

The exhibit runs until December 19 and is located at 1400 Berri, room J-R120. Open Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 6 pm. For more details, check out the Galerie de l’UQAM website.

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