I spoke with Balti Gurls members Jessica Hyman (also known as DJ Trillnatured), N’Deye Diakhate, Khadija Nia Adell, Joy Postell, and founder Jenné Afiya. The conversation stretched two whole hours, touching on the benefits and failures of anonymity, “mingling” with powerful institutions, self-preservation, “realness,” tokenism, erasure, and Tim Burton, to name a few. Below is the extended, unedited discussion; to read a more condensed version, pick up a paper this week or go here. (Maura Callahan)
CP: I read a Hyperallergic interview with two of the founding Guerrilla Girls members, "Frida Kahlo" (who has also been criticized for taking the name of a Latina artist) and "Käthe Kollwitz," who admitted that they're white, and they asked audiences to take their word for it that they're a racially diverse group. How do you all feel about that; should we hold them to the same standard of diversity and transparency as they do of art institutions?
CP: They say they're all working artists and when they started they felt that unless they did this stuff anonymously they would be risking their independent careers. It would be interesting to know if they still felt that way in 2016, if they could do this unmasked.
CP: What's interesting to me is that the Guerrilla Girls, judging by just this show—and obviously this isn't a comprehensive exhibition—but they seem to sort of treat the issue of racial equity as kind of a side thing. And I noticed on one of the walls, where the got into the 2000s, they also started talking about Hollywood and politics. There's this fake movie poster, "The Birth of Feminism." It's Pamela Anderson as Gloria Steinem, Halle Berry as Flo Kennedy, and Catherine Zeta Jones as Bella Abzug.
CP: I felt that way about, it was on the same wall, the one that says "Guerrilla Girls to museums: Time for gender reassignment!" I wondered if they had addressed issues that transgender face in the art world or elsewhere, and I couldn't find anything in their archives related to that, so that language felt pretty off-putting.
CP: Did you see anything in the show that was new to you, or maybe hadn't seen expressed that way before?
CP: Something that I sometimes have trouble grappling with is what it means to have this activist artwork that is attacking these institutions being exhibited in those institutions. It seems like for the Guerrilla Girls, at least, and for another activist artists, that's now more often where their work is being shown.
CP: Where do you see yourselves, as a collective, in relation to those kinds of institutions as well as feminism as an institution?
CP: The Guerrilla Girls' focus is really New York; that's where the money is. So when you were looking at the numbers in the exhibition, like the "Report Cards" where they show the number of women exhibited in New York galleries, what were your feelings about how that is reflected here in Baltimore?
CP: It does feel like there's been radical change in the various scenes here—at least, more radical than in the past—and it is hard to know what to make of that. In some ways, it's a new city.
ND: And then that gets into the whole politics of like, for black people and marginalized people, at all just feeling comfortable with getting recognized for their work. We’ve always just historically been in this self-sacrificial role that anything other than that feels too much—anything other than being completely 100 percent with no kind of self-preservation in mind. There just has to be some kind of balance. It’s kind of like artists getting paid for their work. I feel like, for me personally, I feel uncomfortable talking about price and things like that because like historically, me, my peoples, my friends, especially women of color have just been in a situation of that self-sacrificial role where we shouldn’t be getting anything back for what we do.
CP: There's this one poster in the show that says "You're seeing less than half the picture without the vision of women artists and artists of color." That's something I think about a lot, not just with art but in everything, we—everyone, including white men—have missed out on so much, not because it wasn't happening, but because it wasn't acknowledged or recognized or recorded in any way.
CP: The quote is "Nowadays, people are talking about it more. Things either call for things, or they don't. I remember back when I was a child watching The Brady Bunch and they started to get all politically correct. Like, OK, let's have an Asian child and a black. I used to get more offended by that than just... I grew up watching blaxploitation movies, right? And I said, that's great. I didn't go like, OK, there should be more white people in these movies."
CP: Burton's stuff is supposed to reference German Expressionist cinema, which of course was all white. It's interesting what you're saying about that, because he's using an aesthetic that is historically white, but why wouldn't you think about where that aesthetic is flawed? And where it can be improved upon? Why are you using it at all if you're not trying to use it in a way that's more interesting?
CP: The Guerrilla Girls' poster about tokenism brings up a point about being the only woman or person of color in a show. How do you feel about exhibitions curated by white people or men or white men that explicitly show only women or people of color, so the premise is simply the artists' collective identity? I've seen that happen recently here in Baltimore.
CP: It would be a very different thing if this was a show that was all women artists but that wasn't the point. That's not part of make the statement. What if this was a show about, I don't know, color abstraction, and by the way all the artists are women?
"Front Room: Guerrilla Girls" is on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art through March 12, 2017. For more information, visit artbma.org. For more information on Balti Gurls, visit baltigurls.com.