Recently, #itchysilk writer Semtex spoke to Aphra Behn a former member of the original feminist group Guerrilla Girls. Before Pussy Riot (circa 2011) entered the feminist affray with their punk rock-fuelled sound, Aphra Behn was spearheading a voice for activism and gender equality in the 90’s with the anonymous group.
Fast forward to present day, Aphra Behn and the Guerrilla Girls’ ideology remains just as important as it did when the group formed. While the original Guerrilla Girls split into new groups in 2001, Aphra Behn formed Guerrilla Girls On Tour, and continues the ethos of the group which seeks to give a voice to the disenfranchised and the marginalized.
Here Aphra Behn discusses sexism, racism and the fight against these “isms” within the arts.
When did you join Guerrilla Girls, and do you think the founding of the collective in ’85 was largely a product of right time, right place?
I joined the Guerrilla Girls in 1997 and initiated the Girls’ foray into attacking sexism in theatre. From what I heard from some of the older Guerrilla Girl members, women artists in New York City were fed up with being discriminated against in the 80s. It was a time when museums would show huge retrospectives that did not include any works by women or artists of color.
The more money there is [involved in a project], the less you will see women and artists of color represented.
Why do you suppose that, of all institutions, the art world ironically remains most resistant to other voices?
All the arts; dance, music, theatre and visual arts lag behind the rest of society when it comes to opportunities for women and artists of color. A lot of people buy into the myth that the arts are this bastion of liberal ideals and inclusiveness. Not true. Right now, there are just two plays written by women on Broadway (out of fourteen). Out of 45 shows, 29 of them have been directed by men (only one a director of color) and six by women.
Broadway is where the money is and where you can make a living as a theatre artist. As you look at the stats-off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway, you see more works by women and artists of color. We are making theatre, just not where we might have a chance of earning money. This is true of all the arts. The more money there is, the less you will see women and artists of color represented. Including us would be an obvious way to advance the form. I mean, do people really want to hear the same old white male narratives year after year? If they had a choice, I bet they wouldn’t.
Tokenism remains a significant problem in the film industry. Why (in your opinion), is the film industry so prone to falling into the same trap as a more classic medium, like painting?
If I knew why I think I could offer more solutions to the problem. As a member of the Guerrilla Girls and then Guerrilla Girls On Tour we focused on exposing sexism in the arts and beyond. We had no idea how to solve it which is why we made it a point to blame everyone for its persistence. It is everyone’s problem from gallery owners to the artists themselves. We are all in on sexism whether we like it or not so let’s try to make it a thing of the past.
Artistic directors of theatres need to meet with writers and actors and producers and all make a pledge to end discrimination in the arts. Patriarchy is the obvious reason why the arts are so discriminatory, but we must think about it more deeply than that. Continuing the status quo is easier than starting a revolution and we need a revolution.
When you produce seven plays on your main stage and six are by white men, it is still ostensibly white.
Is it time to reinstate the illustrious “weenie counts” of Guerrilla Girls’ initial years-have have the galleries improved their statistics “enough” in terms of being more inclusive and culturally sensitive?
The arts have evolved somewhat but there is a long way to go. Theatre companies will now leave one slot in their season open for a play by a woman or an artist of color-or they will put plays by women or writers of color in their small black box theatre or in a reading series and then point to this move to show they are inclusive. When you produce seven plays on your main stage and six are by white men, it is still ostensibly white. They need to do more than feature artists of color in their black box or women playwrights in a reading series. We need to see that women and artists of color are being produced on the main stages of every theatre in the U.S. for at least 50% of the season. Yes, you could say I am still a quota queen.
How did or does Guerrilla Girls On Tour view those rare female artists who managed to penetrate the art scene in the 70s and 80s of New York like-Judy Chicago, Jenny Holzer and Cindy Sherman?
The goal is parity. There has always been a ton of work to do and a lot of heavy lifting. Whoever can move the ball deserves respect and thanks.
How important is it that female gallery owners carefully consider gender in their curated exhibitions?
All gallery owners should exhibit art which reflects the world around them. When they exhibit only white, male artists they are showing only a small portion of art and boring us all.
Are there times when you feel that gender and race has become too much of a “thing” in the art world in terms of “needing” to fill quotas for an institution to avoid being branded as racist or sexist?
This is like saying that there are just more male artists than female artists or that men write better plays or make better art than women do. Because the arts have been dominated by white men it has been one aesthetic over another. An aesthetic that is boring, limited and shows the same old, same old narratives stops ideas moving forward – it keeps the art from evolving.
What do you think about other feminist collectives like Pussy Riot?
We heart Pussy Riot. I hope there will be a time when feminists collectives can end. That’s the day I can stop wearing this uncomfortable and sweaty gorilla mask.
To that end, are there any further political-oriented projects in the works for Guerrilla Girls On Tour?
In 2001 the original Guerrilla Girls split into three new and independent groups: Guerrilla Girls On Tour was formed by the GG’s who led the attack on the theatre world from 1997 to 2001. We tour comedic plays and performances like If You Can Stand the Heat: The History of Women and Food and Silence is Violence.
I recently wrote a memoir, UN/MASKED, Memoirs of a Guerrilla Girl On Tour and I am touring with a new interactive talk, PUSH/PUSHBACK, 9 steps to make a difference with activism and art. Guerrilla Girls On Tour will be touring through New York, Illinois, Vermont, Connecticut and other states and foreign countries in the fall. All our work is directed at empowering people to turn congress blue and get rid of forty-five.
Lastly. In terms of the art that’s coming out of New York now, would you say that the chutzpah behind it is lacking in comparison to “the way it used to be”?
I do not comment on living artists. As a Guerrilla Girl On Tour our mission is parity. Period. Parity period. I like that. I am going to make a poster now.
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All images courtesy of GG/GGOT.
For more info on Aphra Behn and her activities please go to the GGOT website