As I walk through the aisles at the 1996 Graduate Research Exhibition, a poster grabs my attention. A painting of a nude woman, reclining on a divan, a gorilla mask covering her head.
A gorilla mask?
Intrigued, I read the corresponding text: "Do women have to be naked to get into the Metropolitan Museum of Art? Less than five percent of the artists in the Modern Arts section are women, but 85 percent of the nudes are female. Guerrilla Girls."
The other images in Anne Demo's display are equally interesting—humorous, satirical, slightly disturbing, ironic. They all have my attention. Yet, I keep going back to the nude with the gorilla head.
"It's shocking," says Demo, a Ph.D. candidate in speech communications, "which is the Guerrilla Girls intent—to shock you, make you notice."
The Guerrilla Girls are a group of anonymous women activists fighting for gender and racial equality within the New York art world. These women know firsthand the lack of female artists in the city's museums and galleries: In "real life," they are artists, curators, art historians. As individuals, they remain quiet to avoid alienation from the art community. As a group, they don gorilla masks to hide their faces and assume the names of dead female artists, in part to further conceal their identities, but also to bring recognition to talented but mostly unknown women.
Their name is as calculated as their anonymity. "Their collective name—Guerrilla Girls—allows them to create multiple levels of who and why they are," Demo explains. "The gorilla mask hides the faces and the identities, yet creates an identity of its own. The masks make an impression on the audience. However, the name is spelled guerilla' to represent their activist role".
"And girls' is a good example of how they use irony to get their message across. They purposely use the more patronizing label to point out the fact that women aren't taken seriously in the art world."
Demo, who has an undergraduate degree in art history, decided to make the activist group the focus of her master's research after reading an article in Mirabella magazine, "Confessions of a Guerrilla Girl." At the time, she was working in the press office of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and she saw first-hand the need for the changes the Guerrilla Girls promote.
"I wanted to study something that combined art, communication, and feminism," she tells me, "as well as something that will have relevancy to both the academic community and the general public. The Mirabella article described who the Guerrilla Girls are and what they do. I wanted to learn how they get their message across and whether or not it could be incorporated elsewhere, in other activist situations.
"In speech communication, I'm looking at the theoretical perspective—I call it a perspective by incongruity—examining the balance of power, knowledge, and relationships. It's based on work by Kenneth Burke, what he calls verbal atom cracking, which is two things that don't go together."
Like the gorilla masks and naked women?
"Yes," explains Demo, nodding emphatically. "Only I call it visual atom cracking. So much of the Guerrilla Girls work depends on images that make you shift your focus when you look at it. It makes you rethink things."
Demo also wanted to investigate a contemporary activist group who incorporate a feminist message.
"Feminism has become another dirty F' word," Demo says. "I think we need to reconsider how feminism is presented, find tactics that promote positive images, rather than ones that show feminists as combative."
What Demo has found with the Guerrilla Girls is a group who has become a positive voice for women, particularly dead and nearly forgotten women, a voice that has encouraged the New York art community to take notice. The rallies they hold inspire communication, and the communication has inspired action. According to Guerrilla Girls literature, New York museums and galleries are slowly improving the number of women artists included in collections and shows. Around the country, other feminist art activists are using the Guerrilla Girls as an example of positive activism and a positive feminist image.
In her research, Demo found that the positive tactics used by the Guerrilla Girls can be used to improve the image of feminist and other marginal group and still allow them to remain outside the mainstream.
"Those in power, those in dominate groups and those who control popular media and culture, take notice of this positive activism, but it still allows an aura of resistance.
"Activism in the art world isn't new, but the methods have changed," Demo says. "In the '70s, feminist art activists used demand tactics, similar to other protests going on at the time. In the '90s, the tactics have changed to humor and parody. But the message is the same: Women artists are underrepresented in art museums."
During our interview, Demo challenges me to name a few female artists. I sip my coffee to gain some time. The only names I come up with are Mary Cassatt and Georgia O'Keefe, but, I quickly explain, I don't really know much about art.
"Can you name any male artists?" she asks. This time I hesitate for a different reason—so many come to mind that I have to decide who to name first.
"That," Demo says, slapping both hands on the table, "is why we need the Guerrilla Girls."
Anne Demo received her master's degree in speech communications in the College of the Liberal Arts in 1996 and is currently working on her Ph.D. She is at 308 Sparks Building, University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-0100.