They came, they provoked and they conquered. Guerrilla Girls, the art world’s punk band of feminists fighting for gender equality, pasted posters and performed at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. And the biennale and its viewers cheered them on.
Guerrilla Girls, participating artists at the fourth edition of the famous contemporary art show, came to deliver a stern message: Indian art must shun elitism, capitalism and male chauvinism. Those messages were visible in the simple, yet steely words on posters around Fort Kochi, the biennale venue. “When racism & sexism are no longer fashionable, what will your art collection be worth?” asked one poster, referring to mega-buck prices that a handful of male artists demand. Another sneered at the double standards of galleries: “Dear art gallery: Selling art is sooo expensive! No wonder you can’t pay all your employees a living wage!” Yet another scorned museums monopolising art: “If museums don’t show art as DIVERSE as the cultures they claim to represent, TELL THEM they’re not showing the history of art, they are just preserving the history of wealth & power.”
The arrival of Guerrilla Girls, the anonymous American group that has been protesting against sexism and racism in the art world for over three decades now, couldn’t have been better timed. Both the biennale and Indian art need their powerful warnings to stay gender-focused. After three editions that packed big names, the biennale is aiming at diversity this year by selecting more women and Dalit artists, and artists with no formal training.
Curator Anita Dube, who invited Guerrilla Girls to be a part of the show, is a fierce campaigner for gender equality and inclusivity in art. “More than half of the participating artists this year are women,” beams Dube. After the group’s presentation at the biennale pavilion, where some members of the audience read a statement against biennale founder Riyas Komu—who stepped down following an allegation of sexual harassment—Dube added: “This can be a space for insurrection. We can discuss the issues.”
Guerrilla Girls’ visit, their first to India, comes in the aftermath of the protests against the Supreme Court judgment allowing women to enter the Sabarimala temple in the state. Their performance on December 14 also coincided with a shutdown in Kerala called in the wake of the immolation of a 55-year-old man in Thiruvananthapuram a day before, against the Sabarimala verdict.
“We stand for the conscience of the art world,” the group said at the beginning of their performance eagerly watched by a packed house of art lovers, artists, school children and a few tourists. “It is not personal,” they added, going on to give a stinging commentary on the status of a male-dominated art world. “We expose discrimination in the art world.”
Guerrilla Girls has two of its founding members participating in the biennale with posters and videos of their works this year. The 55-member group, founded in 1985, uses facts and humour to attack racism and sexism. Art, they say, is the fourth-largest black market after drugs, guns and illegal goods. The group’s statistics are revealing: the majority of art students are women, but after graduating, opportunities go to men. Women artists participating in museums are only 14% with the rest being male artists. The highest price for a woman artist ever is $12.4 million, far less compared to their male counterparts. Only four commercial galleries in New York show black women—only one shows more than one.
“The world of art is great, but the art world sucks,” the group says, adding that in most museums across the world, collection of art by women “exists in the basement”. When 282 museums in Europe didn’t respond to a survey they did on the number of women artists on show, they painted their names on the floor and had people walk on it. The group even rented billboards and redesigned the Oscar statue to protest against the lack of opportunities and honours for African-American directors and actors. After members of audience at their performance raised the sexual harassment case against Komu, Guerrilla Girls said: “This is what social change looks and feels like. It is not comfortable.”
Faizal Khan is a freelancer