BSC Artist Profile - Donna Kaz, Guerrilla Girl
In the 80’s, a group of guerrilla masked female artists took to the streets of NYC to fight for gender parity. With their sharp wit and biting humor, the Guerrilla Girls tackled feminist issues in the art world in a way no one had seen before. My own feminist perspective was not only informed by the work of the Guerrilla Girls but also inspired me to start Blue Scarf Collective. I had the pleasure of talking to Donna Kaz- aka Aphra Ben - about the Guerrilla Girls, the role of today's feminist artists, and how groups like Blue Scarf Collective can have the greatest impact through art activism. – Sherry Beth Sacks
To learn more about Donna and the Guerrilla Girls get her amazing new book Un/Masked: Memoirs of a Guerrilla Girl on Tour.
SB: Can you tell me your name and how you would describe yourself?
DK: My name is Donna Kaz. I'm also known as Aphra Ben- that is my Guerrilla Girl name. I describe myself as a feminist, an activist, a female artist and a New Yorker.
SB: For those of who don't know about the Guerrilla Girls how would you describe the group?
DK: The GG are a pseudonymous feminist activist group that formed in the 80's to fight for gender parity in the art world. The group began in 1985, when a bunch of visual artists were upset about an exhibit in NYC. A curator was quoted in the New York Times as saying, "anyone who is not in this exhibit should rethink HIS career"
A bunch of women artists got together in SOHO to discuss ideas in how to respond and they eventually came up with this concept of GG,. They started making art which pointed to sexism and discrimination in the visual art world. They started making posters and putting them all over SOHO, which was the heart of the visual art movement at that time. They signed them Guerrilla Girls, got attention from the press and were asked for interviews. The girls needed to appear in public and didn't want to reveal their true identities because they each take the name of dead women artists.
SB: Why were masks used?
DK: We didn't want to people to accuse us of thinking we were doing this to promote our own careers. We wanted to put the focus specifically on the issues of sexism and discrimination and the way to do that was to use pseudonyms and wear masks so that we would never show our faces in public. The mask is powerful. It is an icon that you can look to- a theatrical symbol. It was also a barrier, and also frightening which ended up being a direct contrast to the humor that the girls were using. The angry, revolutionary gorilla is a wonderful image but so is the humor laughter and comedy that engage the audience into identifying as activists too. So yes, there is place for the symbol. People were in awe. You have the same kind of reaction when you see Pussy Riot and their masks. The mask as a symbol works in many ways, but it can be intimating and you don't want that.
SB: What were some of the first acts that you participated in?
DK: We did a sticker campaign of theatre companies in NYC that weren't producing plays by women; they were producing plays by white men only. We wanted to involved the audience so we put the stickers in the toilet stalls of theatre.
SB: SO how do you feel art, if at all, can make a difference?
DK: Well, as artists are the truth tellers of the world. We reflect back to the world through our art what the truth is of the particular moment that we live in. I think it's especially true now that Trump is in office, art has a responsibility of keep telling the truth.
SB:Where do you feel that feminist artists fit into that truth telling?
DK: We are the best at doing that because we're under attack. Everyone has a circle on her back now with this administration. We need to keep addressing women's issues like reproductive rights, violence against women, gender parity, pay equity, but we also need to join other movements like Black Lives Matter, LGBT and Muslim community. The time is now to come together and get momentum going.
SB:What would you suggest that feminist artists and activist can do today to make an impact?
DK: I think it's really important to meet in small groups, to strategize, have an agenda and focus on something very specific. The Guerrilla Girls were a small group of women who got a lot of work done. Boots on the ground- work is meeting and discussing with small groups of people. I think if you have a small group of like minded people that you meet with on a regular basis and have a specific goal, you'll feel much better about what you're doing. Find your voice. Find your own personal voice. Figure out a way to do it. There's no Feminism 101 where we all put on masks and run around the streets. Everyone will find their own way, which is important as we support each other to take on the Trump Era.