In this week's City Paper, we talked to local artist collective Balti Gurls about their response to the "Front Room: Guerrilla Girls" exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art. The conversation ran two whole hours, so only a portion of the discussion made it into the pages of the paper. Here, you can read the extended version, including parts of the talk that didn't run in print.
When people think about feminist or activist art, they often think of the Guerrilla Girls. The New York-based feminist collective of women artists, who hide their identities beneath gorilla masks and take the names of women artists of the past, goes back to the mid-’80s, with over 55 people serving as members over the years. Fourteen years before the Guerrilla Girls’ debut, ARTnews magazine published art historian Linda Nochlin’s seminal—ahem, ovular essay ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’, breaking down the assumptions of that very question and assessing how, through restrictive social and institutional structures, history has erased women’s accomplishments and prevented their contributions from unfolding. This was also around the time when a few women artists, like Artemisia Gentileschi, were finally starting to receive their place in art history books, centuries after their deaths.
But almost 20 years later, the Guerrilla Girls still recognized a pressing need to pose the question “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” on a large yellow billboard with the body of Ingres' nude “Odalisque” topped with a gorilla mask.
And then they asked that question again, with a near identical billboard, in 2005. And again in 2012. The “weenie count” that follows each question barely changes year to year: In 1989, less than five percent of the artists in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s modern galleries were women, and 85 percent of the nudes were female; in 2005, there were less than three percent women artists and 83 percent female nudes; in 2012, four percent women artists and 76 percent female nudes.
This absence of considerable change in the art world—as well as shifts in the Guerrilla Girls’ work—becomes clear at Baltimore Museum of Art’s Front Room exhibition of the collective’s posters, signs, and billboard designs spanning 1985 to 2012. Organized by date on salon-style walls with enough text every few square feet to require hours to absorb, the images challenge the art world’s lack of gender parity as well as the representation of people of color in the arts—though, noticeably, the latter is addressed more sparingly.
Perhaps one of the show’s greatest strengths is simply the placement of the room it inhabits: Visitors must walk through the Front Room in order to see most of the Contemporary galleries, including the massive space dedicated almost entirely to Andy Warhol, or to the room with the flat, checkerboard floor sculpture by Carl Andre—who, by the way, was acquitted in 1988 of the murder of his wife, the lesser known artist Ana Mendieta (mentioned again below). Today, that verdict is still highly contested.
I did my own “weenie count” of the artwork currently on view in BMA’s Contemporary Wing, but instead of counting the nudes (there aren’t many), I counted the number of artists of color, as well as the number of women artists represented. I found that in the Contemporary galleries—including the Black Box (now showing John Waters’ “Kiddie Flamingos”), the atrium, and the upstairs galleries—a third of the artists shown were women and about 23 percent were artists of color.
To discuss the BMA’s show on the Guerrilla Girls, I called on Balti Gurls, Baltimore’s own collective of women artists. But to be clear, I’d hesitate to compare the Balti Gurls to the Guerrilla Girls. For one thing, we know the real names and faces of the members that make up the Balti Gurls. For another, they are all young women of color. According to their mission statement, the Balti Gurls aim “to cultivate platforms and ‘creative safe space’ for other women of color,” whereas the Guerrilla Girls “use facts, humor and outrageous visuals to expose gender and ethnic bias as well as corruption in politics, art, film, and pop culture.” To put it simply, the Balti Gurls create; the Guerrilla Girls critique.
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?
Jessica Hyman: I think seeing bodies of color is important. And saying that you’re diverse is excellent, it’s great, no shade; but I think it means something to be able to see those bodies and what they represent.
Joy Postell: Why do they wear masks?
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.
JP: [Masks are] kind of cowardly. That perspective, it could either be seen as strategic or it could be seen as cowardly. You claim you're this, you claim you're that, but you're still hiding your face.
Jenné Afiya: The first time I became familiar with the Guerrilla Girls was in AP Art History; you get to 1970-something and it's like, "alright, we're gonna talk about feminist art"—and it's Ana Mendieta, the Guerrilla Girls, and Cindy Sherman. So, one woman of color, who tragically was her killed by her husband—he's still working. As a young black girl looking at this, I took issue with this choosing the gorilla mask, choosing that image. And I also know that there's banana imagery as well. I don't know if to obscure your identity you have to take on that sort of charged image. Especially because we're all working in the field of creating images, I don't think that's a not known thing, if you're an artist and this is what you're exploring and mining. So that was something I noticed very early on as a question mark—what is that about? And if there are women of color, particularly black women involved, has that been a conversation, and what is the response to that? Because there are many other ways to obscure your identity that don't have any reference to any of that, to animals, to anything like that.
Khadija Nia Adell: When new members come in are they still sticking to that kind of manifesto of when they arrived as a collective group? What is the discussion around that?
N'Deye Diakhate: There's just been a long history of not being able to trust white people when they say something's diverse.
JH: And what's your definition of "diverse," because we have different definitions.
JA: If the work exhibited is any proof of that, there were mentions of race but I think none of it ever felt like, we’re gonna break down some shit, like, y’all ain't including black women—it just felt like black women were included as part of a list of underrepresented people, which is fine. But I think that maybe spending time with each of those groups—like what is it like for a Latina woman, a black woman, an Asian woman, a queer woman? I think so much of their stuff throughout the timeline still reads as very general to me. Which I think that definitely speaks to the general problem of women not being included [in arts institutions] but I think it’s almost for me like “what’s your lane?” and like, this might sound bad, but like stay in it? Like don’t use me or other women of color…
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.
JH: “They make women’s rights look good, really good.”
ND: So they further sexualize a black woman’s body?
JA: Yeah, yeah.
ND: I guess I get the point but the thing I have a hard time with is I feel like lots of times in art or in creative fields of expression in order to prove a point you end up creating the problem. And I feel like there are so many other ways to explain yourself without having to further perpetuate the issue of sexualized women. Like you don’t need to explain sexualizing women by further sexualizing women.
JA: Or that’s the point, like, people are only going to be down with feminism unless—
KA: It’s sexy.
JA: I think it’s really interesting where we are now; I don’t think 5 or 10 years ago people thought we would be having these types of conversations. Like the wage gap and reproductive rights and things like that are just general conversations now and just like how people thought the black power, pro black movement was dead, now there’s Black Lives Matter, I think people feel the same way about feminism. People really thought the kids weren’t down with it, but then here comes Tumblr! Here comes the Internet, radicalizing us all, or many of us.
JH: Like Amber Rose, for example. She just did another Slutwalk. I’ve never seen anything like that before, from like a mainstream kind of celebrity.
ND: Just Beyonce as a whole.
JA: Yes. The entire “Lemonade” situation.
ND: Even self-titled.
JA: Even the fact that people use the term “slut-shaming” so often and really know what that means and are really trying to get on a different plane about demonizing women’s choices as far as sex goes, or not even sex but even just how you fucking dress and walk out the house. That’s interesting even though people still take the term Slutwalk, I saw a lot of comments like “I would never let my daughter go to that!” People still don’t get it but it’s still much more of an open conversation than it once was. I don’t know that [the movie poster] gets its point across very well, or maybe it just hasn’t aged well. Maybe in 2004 this was really saying something that it’s not saying in 2016.
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.
JH: Yeah if I was a transgender person I probably wouldn’t find that funny.
JA: I’m glad you said that because I had the same reaction.
KA: We're at a point now, like is this enough for 2016?...You can't just drop these bombs without really educating people about what you're saying. So walking into that space I didn't know how to feel about what I was seeing on the wall and I still don't really know. But I also expected to be able to digest it differently than having all of that in those three small—it was kinda cramped in a way, even though it's a fairly large space.
JH: But education-by-meme is all that exists now. There's no nuance, it's trying to prove a point by shock value and it can be effective, but if you don't look up the rest then you're kinda lost on it.
ND: I appreciate the fact that it's all very text heavy or all posters, just because I'm into that; but just in order to get those bits of information out quickly in that kind of manner, if you're talking about that it has to have that amount of specificity. Otherwise it gets into that jumble of that lack of education, that education-by-meme.
JA: I also would have really wanted to see the original sites of some of these pieces. There was a timeline but there was no context for that timeline and I think that would’ve helped me be better able to see, like the movie poster for example, was that in a movie theater originally? Was that in a gallery? I think that would’ve helped me understand the point they were trying to make at the time.
KA: I also wonder about people coming into the museum and seeing it for the first time and are not aware of their work. How we’re all saying there’s a lack of context for us, I wonder if other people feel that way as well. And with the whole kind of shock value of putting words up there, I wonder how other people receive that. Like a family of four or something walking into that gallery space, of young kids reading this, what are they seeing? Is it too much?
JA: It was a lot for me now just passing the computer around. It takes energy for me to really digest it….I like the text, it’s kinda a “fuck you, like don’t tell me what art is supposed to look like.”
CP: Did you see anything in the show that was new to you, or maybe hadn't seen expressed that way before?
ND: The one poster that was specifically about black women was really interesting, how there were only four contemporary museums in New York that showed black women at all and only one of them showed more than one.
KA: I wonder how these statistics compare to what's happening today in the art world, because with the people that I follow and the artwork that I'm looking at, the black art world, the African diaspora art world, the "minority" art world is huge. I wonder [about] the numbers today, and then I wonder if that's even really important, whether or not we're just making what we're making and that's what matters.
JA: This whole attacking the institution thing just really gets in a circle. For example, a lot of black women aren’t in Whitney, or black women are in the paintings but not the artists. But do I want to be in the Whitney though? Maybe I don’t, maybe I’m not down for participating in an institution that has upheld Eurocentric beauty standards, creative standards, education standards—maybe that’s not the goal. I think attacking the institution makes the institution a goal. I get it, I’m down for that critique, but it just gets into this repetitive cycle and maybe that’s why the Guerrilla Girls’ work over time is still very similar because the institutions are not changing. And when do you kinda get to this point where you’re like, fuck it. And I think what you’re saying, Khadija, like the black art world for us is so much online, it’s so much Instagram, it's so much other things. I’m not just going to the BMA, the Walters, the Met—
KA: For a source, yeah.
JA: I’m not doing it. Also it’s like I think there’s something on an intuitive level that like even as a kid, I knew better. Like who am I gonna go see, Henry O. Tanner? That’s like probably the only black person they got in there, and he’s man, and you probably wouldn’t know he was black because you know, no one’s really saying that except on the little wall text in .8 font. I think that’s why I’m mad, and I think for me, creating a group like this and asking all these wonderful women to be a part of it, it was so much about making your own space.
ND: Instead of like trying to fix the institutions you deconstruct it as a whole—not by actually deconstructing it but by making it less valuable. If all the value happens outside of it then you kinda remove its power.
KA: That’s funny because I feel like with a show like this, it’s very much the example of the institution trying to stay relevant by presenting something that maybe has a certain shock value to it, or has a certain punch. What does it mean to have work critiquing the institution in the institution and then make some kind of value off of that? It’s the same circle, like oh you finally made it, now what does it mean?
JH: I think it’s palatable feminism, it’s palatable activist art.
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.
ND: Part of me is kinda upset about it, but another part of me kinda feels like it has to happen on all levels in order to be revolutionary. So in order for it to happen, it has to happen both in the institution, outside of the institution, and in other realms of art, or other realms of just existence in general. Because, well, ultimately they’re making money off of you being here in the first place, but I can’t get too mad because as long as the other work is also being done simultaneously...
JA: I’m just curious what else they do outside of this. Like, hey, you can be in the institution, but what else are you engaged in, or what else are you engaging? Because if it’s just engaging this institutional critique, I don’t know.
JH: Self-critique is important.
JA: Self-critiquing or, I don’t know, have a scholarship for women artists—
JH: To get into the institution.
JA: To get into the institution, yeah! Shit, start your own art school. But then it’s like, you become the institution. I just wonder what else is being engaged, like outside of this conversation, even amongst [the Guerrilla Girls] as members privately.
KA: Back to the mask thing that Joy brought up, I feel like that takes away the accountability in a certain way, like having people to critique your life as artists, as activists. Which is something we’re all privy to and should have the right to protect our privacy as people and as artists, but there’s also like, yeah that would open them up to oh, well, maybe you’re a racist in your other life. It opens you up to that kind of social critique that we already have a kind of unhealthy but also healthy relationship with when it comes to celebrity and artists as celebrity, artists as activist celebrity.
JA: It’s like a really passive way to be an activist. It’s like all the perks of being an activist with zero accountability.
ND: So many people just don’t have the ability to allow themselves to be anonymous, like you can’t get a lot of funding if you’re anonymous. I feel like there’s a lot of privilege in being able to be anonymous and still be able to profit off of your work.
JA: I wonder if they do profit off of their work.
JP: There’s probably members in there that are booking the shows. They got plugs. But you wouldn’t know because they’re anonymous.
JH: They be at the front and then run back and change and then take off the mask and run back.
CP: Where do you see yourselves, as a collective, in relation to those kinds of institutions as well as feminism as an institution?
JH: I think we mingle with the institutions. We benefit from institutions like media platforms which put us out there, and write ups and things like that, so we can’t possibly be completely anti institution, unless we wanna live off the grid?
KA: I think that ideology is flawed. I think it’s because it kind of slips into this awesome lack of accountability like what does it mean to be privileged to just exit from the world and not have to be responsible for cleaning up the mess that we’re all in….it’s good to be free, we should all be free, but we all have shit to do.
JA: That’s a really good point you make about “mingling.” It’s like this fine line that I think many of us personally and professionally juggle, because, you know, it’s like they “give you” clout or cache or exposure but at the same time, they look real hip or can look real hip or down by being like, let’s talk about this group that is addressing race and gender. I think feminism or activism as commodity, it’s is like very much a selling point. Like you see these ads for deodorant, like “play like a girl!” We’re at this point where people are realizing that in order to stay relevant that’s the vein they have to be in, the “woke vein.” But at the same time I think that we’re not at a point where like, you know, Pepsi’s not calling, Coke’s not calling, but we’ve been selective about who we’ve done interviews with or who we’ve collaborated with. You sometimes have to say no, because how you will look in the end isn’t going to be beneficial. But at the same time, you know my whole goal for the group is that everyone can get paid for this. And pay comes from exposure, it comes from working with people or can come from working with people and I think either smaller groups or individuals we all kind of are working through like how can I pay my bills and still do this?
KA: That’s where the “mingle” comes from, it’s like this delicate dance of not selling your soul and keeping to your principles and what you value, but still needing money in order to accomplish the things that you want. I feel like for all of us, probably, you have to kind of dance back and forth with that because the two extremes are you being completely broke and not having anything to support your dreams and being depressed and being in a really bad situation, versus completely selling out and being used by an institution. Where is the middle ground?
JH: Activists, we’re are very hard on ourselves. You can mingle with an institution but not too much because your activist friends will talk about you, because you’re “not activist enough”—
KA: I hate that.
JH: —“You’re fucking with too many white people at the top.” That’s why it’s a dance. It’s not just like internal, people around you telling you this is how you need to be an activist.
ND: I feel like sometimes people are really focused on how you “perform” activism. When there’s so many different ways that you can do it, because there’s so much shit. So when it comes to, “oh, you’re talking to too many white people” or “you’re too—” there needs to be someone in the middle kind of mingling while still trying to play that dance.
JH: I think when you’re an activist, you can’t act like you’re not trying to gain access to something that’s mainstream. That’s somewhat of your goal, is to gain power. That’s what activism is, so I think a lot of people try to front like they don’t have their eyes set on a certain prize, but I think they do. And they all know it.
JA: I’ve been reading so much about many activist movements of the 20th century and this conversation inevitably happens, someone’s called a sellout, someone’s saying you’re not activist enough, I’m more down than you are, I’m blacker than you, I’m more feminist than you. I think that’s the conversation that really sinks shit. Critique is okay but that point when critique becomes fighting—
JH: —Or just trying to punish people rather than pulling them up in private and saying hey, let’s talk about this, maybe you should do this differently. It’s like getting on Facebook and posting a public lashing of another activist because they’re not doing it the way you think they should.
JA: I think that’s what’s new for us. People can just very easily get online and say some shit about you.
JH: And then you’re scared to call yourself an activist, because it’s like, well, if I do then people are gonna have these expectations of me. You’re putting yourself out there. But you should be able to claim that you’re an activist and do it the way you want to as long as you’re being mindful and open.
JA: I’ve been careful to never label myself as an activist or the group as an activist group, but I think when you say that you’re dealing with race and gender people are like oh, radicals.
KA: That’s just my life though.
JA: I think that’s a hard thing, too; you can be labeled as one. And then all those expectations roll on in, even though you were like, I was just chillin.
KA: ...Just talking about things that affect me….
ND: The whole conversation of call-out culture versus “calling in” that’s been talking about how there are more productive ways to call people on their shit as opposed to just public humiliation—
JH: Like it’s a contest.
KA: That’s interesting when you were talking about feminism as an institution and for me that just brings up the conversation of white feminism versus women of color feminism or third world feminism or whatever you want to call it. That call-out culture still kind of exists just because it’s always like, well you’re not speaking about my experience, this is what I’m talking about. It’s still that bridge, which goes back to the whole generality of the exhibition. In a sense when I say “general” I do also mean “white”; like whiteness and how that’s seen as universal.
JA: Yeah like in the “feminist community”—
KA: —versus “womanism.”
JA: Yeah, the sort of white feminist to black feminists or women of color feminists being like “we’re speaking for all women and you’re included in this and we’re doing you a favor.” That’s when it gets in this really weird patronizing type of vein. It’s just interesting how that plays out, like how it’s “we’re speaking for you” but it’s like, how are you? What’s the plan with that? I speak for myself. It’s not all about sharing our experiences as women and then, I’m also black or I’m also brown or I’m also queer. This idea like Khadija was talking about about that generality can be like the best way to communicate a point or a means to an end, that’s really toxic. Still even in—what is this third wave or fourth wave feminism?—we’re still having that conversation and it’s like, damn. That goes to show how race really does play a role in how things get dictated and who feels like they get to speak for whom.
KA: Maybe that’s a reason why we’re maybe still stuck in that dance, like with third generation and fourth generation feminism it’s like why have so many generations of thought passed and yet we still feel like we’re in the same place, in almost every social kind of situation that we can critique right now in this country and globally. Why does it feel like that? Because we’re still dealing with these same boundaries; it’s just like we’re consistently hitting a wall.
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?
JH: The state of the arts here is influenced by the uprising in ways that we don't even know yet. It's very activist-heavy. People want that story still, and people still want to talk about it and write about it.
JA: That's a good point. If you had asked me that question close to two years ago now, I would've had a more concrete answer, but the scene has changed so much and has been so informed by the uprising and who kind of floated to the top as a result of that and that's still very much the conversation. And you know, the two or three Baltimores existing at one time—I really enjoy that that's a part of the conversation but my fear is: So when this is no longer the topic-of-the-day, what is everything going to shake out to look like? What are these arts districts still gonna look like? Who's gonna get funding? Who's gonna have space? Because I think that these conversations and platforms are great, but what the end result of that is going to be, to me, is more important. None of these people who made really amazing work or became known as a result of [the uprising]—and many of them are a part of underrepresented groups—if they don't end up being in the long run or benefiting from the terrible situation that caused all that, then what's the point?
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.
JA: The amount of development in the past year or two has been staggering…The whole development of the Station North area becoming a district, not a couple of blocks. City Arts 2 and the Parkway, the Hopkins/MICA Film Centre opening, so much has changed visually in just one year. And the fact that it's so close to where the uprising really took place also says a lot.
JH: Another part of the conversation about art and self-proclaimed activist art is, who's been doing this and who hasn't? It's an elephant in the room. There's this weird unspoken kind of "who's really from Baltimore and who's not?" I find myself being hyper aware and kinda checking myself like, what's the "real Baltimore" gonna say about this? You know, if I decide to be vocal about so-and-so. But then why do I have to check myself? I'm not out here frontin' or trying to play a role that's not mine.
JA: It's just this whole thing people wanna be like, oh you're from here, you're from there; like, yeah I couldn't control where I lived when I was 15 years old. That's another conversation that undermines everything [rather than], what is the work that you're trying to do right now? And how is that benefiting the goals that you have and the mission that you have, and are you doing what you say you're doing? A lot of the real and who's fake conversation really stems from a weird place.
JH: It's always in the background. I just won Best DJ in the Club [in City Paper's Best of Baltimore issue] and I know people are talking. There are other DJs who were born and raised in Baltimore who are dope as hell in the club who have been doing it for years who weren't awarded that. I understand that, but I also don't wear the award on my chest either. It's like that dance again, it's conflicting. I feel it personally, not on like a Balti Gurls level, but personally I feel it.
JA: There's a long line of black people feeling guilty for success, for accomplishment, and what is that?
JH: The "real Baltimore", the people who define themselves as that don't think that somehow you deserve that recognition, but if they got recognition from the same institution they'd love it—no shade.
JA: That's just really the, who's black and who's not conversation. That's what that is, that real conversation, you are not black enough, I'm blacker than you, when we all black. "Real" is a code word.
KA: It's simultaneously distracting yet important. The core emotion of that is representing experience and being real about that and not being fake and just not making shit up. And not misrepresenting people, but there's also this larger goal of us collectively being successful in the things that we do and supporting each other. Community building is much more important than whether or not you are telling a story that I think is accurate. It's all about personal experience.
JA: Not everyone is consumed with the "real" idea of real. Some people are just really excited to see black folks doing their thing and being able to do their thing.
ND: It seems as if only one narrative is considered to be an authentic narrative. We're all allotted our oppressions and we're all allotted our privileges and kinda realize where we stand with that and how we operate with that. [But] as long as our work is pure and we're really giving to our people and we're really giving to our community, then what else is there at the end of the day?
JH: Whoever your people are, you don't have to front. Like just stay in your lane, and don't try and play a role that's not yours to play.
KA: People just feel shaded by that.
JP: I was reading this book "Afrocentricity" and the author made a point that was really tight: There two forms of consciousness, of oppression, when you're aware of what's happening to you, and then there's also the consciousness of victory, so that you can be victorious over the oppression that's happening to you. Some people just stay in stage one and they perpetuate the oppression because they're just so focused on the oppression that's happening to them, but they're not focused on "how can I create a way out of this oppression? How can I be victorious in this situation?" It's also a state of mind. Some people really just be on that, they see what's wrong and that's all they see. "That's what's wrong! That's what's wrong! That's what's wrong!" But bitch, you ain't offering no solutions. Straight up, where the solutions at? That's really what it's about. Then when you start to offer solutions, it just throws people off because they're not on that level. They're not like, "I can get over what's wrong, I can create."
JH: But also that mindset can go in the wrong direction when people feel like, well, if you ain't gonna do nothing about it don't comment on it, don't say nothing, get off Facebook, don't write no statuses; either shut up or don't do nothing. There's a middle ground. You can still talk about your experiences. I completely agree with what you said, but it's almost like, if you're not gonna be out there picketing in the streets, then don't say shit, and I think that's too much of an extreme. And also what you said about the consciousness of victory, along with that goes the consciousness of privilege and as a woman of color it can be kinda hard to think about your privilege. But we all have it.
JP: Picketing and going to protests is not the only form of protesting. Like me, us, being happy low-key is a form of protest, 'cause look at all the fuck shit being thrown at you. Look at the way they're trying to bring the energy down so that you're literally mad all day. They want you to be mad all day! So you can do some rude shit to somebody that didn't do nothing to you and ruin someone else's day. It's all a cycle. Literally being happy or standing in your power is a form of protest. Me breathing is a form of protest because I'm alive in America in a country that does not like me, that cannot stand me. My presence is a protest.
ND: It's like that Audre Lorde quote, "Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare." It's real, for oppressed people, just us being here is phenomenal.
JA: Miraculous as fuck.
JH: Why is it that the more marginalized we are, we fight more about what activism is. What is that?
ND: I think it’s fear.
JP: People just really want to box you in or associate you with a label. It’s easier for people to process. I don’t know, I feel like when it comes down to music, for me, it’s like “what genre are you?” That’s the first thing people ask. You wanna box me in so you can process my music. I can’t sit there saying, it’s my music, why can’t you decide what for yourself what genre it is. You’re asking me to label it which is like, you’re already boxing me in. And if I tell you it’s this you’ll have expectations of it being this.
JH: Once you tell somebody I am this, then they’re like here are my expectations of you and if you don’t meet them well then I guess you’re not what you say you are, and like shame on you.
ND: Sometimes I feel like we have so much to lose. And because of that we get real scared if anyone does something different like if we think of this as the solution and someone’s doing something different than it it’s like oh, you fuckin’ us up, you can’t do that. It seems like it’s easier to critique each other than to fight the enormous system. Sometimes it seems so big that it’s easier to fight with each other. By existing in your lane is your protest and finding out what it is that you want to do and how to really apply that to the things that you care about, that is how you protest. That is how you work that into your livelihood, but it’s too simple to figure that out, so it’s easier to critique each other. We get more antsy about it, I think it’s that fear of slipping further.
JA: I think we’re afraid that somehow we’re gonna lose our freedom. It’s like, if you’re not acting right, you’re gonna be the one that’s gonna sink us all. That’s where that can stem from, like look, we gotta be on the P's and Q's cause you never know and like, with this election you actually don’t know.
KA: Laughing to not cry.
JH: Not to be cynical, but there’s an elephant in the room: People do this activism shit for attention. Like they enjoy being recognized for the work they’re doing and that’s OK. But, it’s the reality. Activists, everybody wants attention, they want what they’re doing to be glorified and so when somebody else’s brand of activism is getting attention and write-ups and this and that and theirs is not, that’s where some of the criticism comes from, like are you deserving this language.
JP: This trendy celebrity thing, that shit’s crazy to me. You’re a celebrity right now you’re like an activist but like you’re not like an activist because you really don’t give a fuck. You just wanna be on CNN, talk your shit, and leave. But when people ask you to do work, you don’t—that’s trippy to me, like that’s mad disrespectful to the people you’re supposedly fighting for.
JH: But even if you’re real as hell, people want attention. They want recognition for what they’re doing. They don’t ever talk about it, but real or fake, activists, people wanna be seen and appreciated in whatever way for the work that they’re doing. I think that’s OK to say. People have whole careers based on activism and they don’t just do it—I mean they do it to do it, for the sake of it, but it ain’t like they’re like oh don’t interview me, no pictures, like no, they want all of the pictures. Some of the pictures. A few.
JP: I think that also goes back to mingling with institutions, how people try to determine realness by how heavily you mingle with institutions. Because then it becomes, are you just using this as a means to an end? Were you just using activism because that was the hype at the time? To get in with this institution? That’s what you really wanted and it just happened that this was the route that was good for you.
JH: Those institutions are seeking you out, it ain’t like you running to them. They’re seeking you out and it’s like when they come what do you, say no?
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.
JP: It’s just like, it’s 2016. We’re “millennials.” I didn’t give us that title, but we fall under the criteria. I feel like especially with our generation, it’s like we’re like yeah, alright, I’m down to help but also I need to eat, too. I need to eat. It’s not even from a selfish standpoint, I need to pay my rent. The word “selfish” taken out of context can be blown around, like it can be a positive thing. You can be a positively selfish person like in the sense of, I’m not going to go out tonight because my body is telling me to rest. That’s selfish because you’re worried about yourself and you’re putting yourself first, I don’t see anything wrong with that. Taking care of yourself. And I feel like for a long time historically black people, we don’t take care of ourselves because we’re so busy taking care of everyone else. So it’s like this double consciousness, you’re looking at yourself from other people’s perspective and that is like a toxic, toxic, toxic thing.
JH: Or acting in way where you know what you do what you say is going to be projected onto your entire race or gender.
ND: Or both.
JP: You can’t just be you. It creates an accountability and a large sense of responsibility, which is not a negative thing because I think personal responsibility is a really important quality to have—with personal responsibility comes growth. But you’re able to take accountability of what you did, and hold others accountable as well. That’s how you push forward, by being aware.
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.
JH: I wouldn't say that it's always the case that they've missed out, I think they know about it, they've seen it, they've heard about it but they're taking from it and using it and appropriating it. So they're definitely benefiting from it, they're just not putting it up on a platform for the art that it is. They're infusing it into their work and calling it theirs.
JA: Did anyone see what Princess Nokia posted today about how Alexander Wang used her song for a show and didn’t even think to invite her? Essentially it’s an entire show about the sort of mainstream culture mining black and brown people, her words were “we feed you.” I thought that was a really interesting word choice—she’s also a poet, so, you know. That was just interesting to see someone who had that level of success—
JH: Alexander Wang, he’s the one who did the airbrush shit?
JA: Also, yes—an airbrush T-shirt I could literally get for $15 at Mondawmin, or less! So yeah, I think about imagery from the '70s for example that's not necessarily black imagery, but it can read as black, and we're black people looking around AND it's like this some appropriative shit. Maybe not in those terms, but have black people always recognized that white people/mainstream culture copies them? The answer is yes. I just think we have an entirely different set of language now and we can easily call things out because of the Internet. It's at this crazy level of just out and out, it's not even trying to hide it. But also, rock and roll became white in less than two decades so anything is possible. Twenty years from now rap could be seen as a white music genre. You never know. Even now the stories that we choose to tell ourselves are an interesting conversation. A lot of it serves respectability politics and what we feel white people wanna see from us.
JH: Or like the first so-and-so-to win so-and-so.
JA: The fact that there are still black “firsts” is like beautiful but crazy.
KA: How Misty Copeland being the first black principal dancer in a company that's been around for decades and has determined ballet standards, you know, just crazy shit like that….People have this expectation for the art world to somehow be free of the problems that the world is still dealing with. It makes complete sense that you would be missing half the picture when shit is not even acknowledged or it's acknowledged and stolen and denied at the same time. We're always dealing with this conversation. It's still the same, unfortunately. And it's not even half the picture, it's most of the picture because when you think of the world, Europe is the smallest effing continent that we have! The rest of the world is filled with black and brown people and yes, you know there are Asian countries where like skin is lighter but then the people working in the fields have brown skin who are producing most of the world's food supply. The picture is never clear.
JP: They lie about the size of the continents anyway because Africa is significantly larger than what they have on that map right there.
KA: Or just like population statistics or census data, and all those things that are able to manipulate what is half and what is whole. There are way more black and brown people in this country than they say on those census projections where they’re like oh the United States and the whole globe will look like a mixed child in 2020 but it’s like no, we’ve been looking like that for 30 years. This is what this country and this world looks like; you are just ready to accept it in 2020. That’s what they’re gonna tell people that they know now. That’s why Trump is in the position that he’s in right now because people are fucking scared.
JA: It’s very clear that the white establishment is like “fuuuuuuuuuuck.” This is what they’ve had nightmares about for like 200 years.
KA: They think we’re gonna enslave them, but it's like no…
JA: Speaking of the representation thing, something really basic like I think we were just talking about this: finding a fucking movie to watch online that is not all white people. Like the fact that there is still all white people anything coming out of Hollywood or anywhere else—
KA: Like Tim Burton—his new movie is coming out and people were saying that the only black person in this is Samuel L. Jackson, resident black person of Hollywood—he just said some bullshit about how his movie should be white because he’s white.
JP: I’ve had a white person say some shit like that to me. I had a white girl say to me, “Why should I learn about black history? I’m not black.” And that says everything right there…you in your bubble.
JA: You’re also not dealing with any sort of facts; you’re living in a fantasy world! People have fucking three heads in this movie, what do you mean—?
KA: Exactly, but black people don’t exist! Like you literally dreamt of another galaxy.
JP: All of Tim Burton’s [characters] are very pale, very skeletal, like emaciated faces.
JA: And then he said how he watched blaxploitation movies as a child—
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."
KA: That makes no sense! They were blaxploitation films!
ND: Well why do blaxploitation films exist in the first place, Tim?
JA: The first blaxploitation film was literally mocking how white Hollywood portrayed black people, and you make movies—I’m not the film history professor, Tim, why am I telling you this?! And it’s like what you were saying Joy; white people do not have to know about black history, brown history, they can just go their entire life without having to encounter it if they don’t feel like it, and that’s another example of that.
ND: It’s just like white people are allowed to be the default and that’s pretty much what he was saying, either the films call for it or they don’t. So if your film doesn’t call for any people of color, it must just be that white folks are the default and only if I need to black it up a little will I add black people. Or if I need to brown it up a little for this specific brown segment will I include them. And then it’s like you’re only using black and brown bodies for your benefit.
JP: Fuck Hollywood man.
KA: It goes back to what you were saying about how bold this is, like how comfortable people are with like—I don’t know, it’s a weird double edged sword because at the same time I want people to out themselves and let me know that I can no longer respect you. But I also am weirded out by how comfortable you are with making that statement and thinking that there are no repercussions for anything you do and for you to be the person that you are that has so much capital and so much power and has such a weight in the industry that you’re in for you to say some shit like that and think that’s not completely the reason why black actors aren’t being hired for black roles or why Asian American actors aren’t being hired and white girls are playing Aeon Flux or whoever the fuck. You know, just completely co-opting these narratives, and you think you’re not a part of that.
JA: Do black kids not watch his movies though—
KA: I watched his movies!
JP: I watched “The Nightmare Before Christmas”; that’s a staple movie of my childhood.
ND: And then it just gets into how the whole Tim Burton aesthetic is pretty much a white aesthetic, only white kids get to be weird and gothy. Only white kids get to have feelings and black roses and shit. Never mind all these other black and brown people who have had that experience and also helped contribute to and developed that; don’t even get into white kids appropriating Day of the Dead shit.
JA: Happy Dalloween everybody!
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?
KA: Which is kind of what we came back to with the exhibition. Like why continuously bring up these kinds of things—or not why, because it’s important to still talk about it, but with the idea of new members critiquing the structure are you trying to see how this could be better or just less general.
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.
JH: Mhm. It's a thing now.
ND: That's the premise?
JH: You gotta be careful about that if you're not a woman or not a woman of color, you really have to be intentional.
JA: That's when I say you need to invite somebody—here's guest curator so-and-so.
ND: I also kind of resent people in this example, men just having women artists [in a show], them being women is the genre. That happens a lot when it comes to people in privileged positions having marginalized people and being like, "Oh I'm gonna put on a show of women or of brown people" and it's like this is the topic. People talking about their own experiences is one thing but it just reinforces how y'all view us. It just reinforces how men view women and how white folks view people of color. It's just, this is our thing and you wanna hear us talk about our thing. Be woman-y.
JA: And this is the case of a bunch of men asking a bunch of women to be in the show—what "type" of women did you choose? What type of work do they have? How many naked women are on the walls? Are they all white? Are they all cis? Are they all straight? When people do these [exhibitions that announce] "I'm gonna show you the work of a woman," "I'm gonna show you the work of a black person," or whatever, it very much falls into tropes and stereotypes. I'm not about it. It just doesn't have to be that way. We've talked a lot about staying in your lane and that's kind of where I'm at.
JH: A lot of times these men or whoever benefits from events like this, they're the ones people want to talk to or they're the ones people wanna reward for doing such a good thing, at the end of the day. So just really be honest with yourself—why am I doing it?
JA: People have said to me a lot about Balti Gurls, "I love women." You can love women all you want, but are you down for the revolution? Are you down for my liberation? You maybe love having sex with women; there's a lot of things you can love about women. But are you down for me to be an independent person?
KA: The idea of putting on a show that highlights one group or one this or one that, it's not even just white men as the catalyst that has become tricky. It's even groups of women putting on shows and deciding whether or not we're going to pointedly say that this is an all-female show or whether or not we're just gonna have a show with the intention to have all people in the show be women artists. There's a difference between those two things and that's something that even women have to be conscious of as well. What are we putting out here; why are we doing it?
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?
JP: What's understood doesn't have to be said.
ND: And that goes into normalizing it, too.
KA: Yeah, like not making it the ticket.
JP: Or fetishizing it.
JH: When I put together Loop Dreams at the Crown, I intentionally didn't want to call it "Girl" anything, even though I will be booking all women or non-binary people, because I want it to feel normal.
KA: It's true. Like what we were talking about with labels and expectations, even just putting the words "girl power" on it like that—even though I know that's a real show and it's a great show—putting that on it can sometimes bring expectations from outside people and it's weird because you don't know if you care about that, if that's what you're really catering to but you can't also act like that doesn't exist.
JA: A lot of times people think marketing things like that can be very "cute." I even caught myself, like the way we present [our music and DJ showcase] Edge Control. Is it all about being very femme; is it all about representing one type of way to be a woman? But at the same time, speaking of Edge Control, a lot of people realize, once they get into a space, that is a bunch of women musicians and DJs, how rare that is. Like in life, not just even going to a show. Like, damn; it's a bunch of women in the room and they're collaborating and doing their thing. That's another thing, if you're a bunch of women "obviously you don't get along." I've been asked so much "how do you work with such a big group of women?" and I'm like, "um, it's not that hard." There's this whole idea that because we're a bunch of women we're always at each other's throats.
KA: Which is funny, because there are statistics—you know, whatever those really mean—saying that women are more savvy in business and always have been. That's so funny. All of a sudden you want to flip the conversation.
ND: Like we're better leaders—
KA: More compassionate, maybe. It gets into a weird realm as well because those qualities are found in anyone.
JH: Also, what do we mean when we say emotional? We call women emotional because they display "non-masculine" emotions but how emotional are men? They have a very specific type of toxic emotion which is anger that they are allowed to display freely. That's very emotional. But we don't call it emotional, we call it macho or whatever. But it's emotions. It's just funny how language is used.
"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.