Frida Kahlo -- that is to say, a New York artist calling herself Frida Kahlo while wearing a comically fierce gorilla mask -- appeared at Toronto's Parkdale Collegiate on Tuesday night to explain what it's like to be part of a group of artists calling themselves the Guerrilla Girls in the wake of Sept. 11.
"It's not easy to wear a mask and call yourself a freedom fighter after Sept. 11," said Kahlo, actually an anonymous woman artist who follows the group's dictum of giving herself the nom de guerre of a famous female painter. "We even questioned whether our irreverence had become offensive in the light of the attack."
The Guerrilla Girls, who include famous as well as lesser-known women artists, was organized in 1985 to prick the public conscience about the continuing exclusion of works by women from museums and galleries. Using their graphic skills, they have produced a series of tough-minded posters which soften the message with humour. One of the best known shows the nude body of a Matisse model wearing the Guerrilla Girls' trademark gorilla mask and asking why only 4 per cent of the artists exhibited at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art are women, while 85 per cent of the nude models are female.
The artists conceal their identities behind a gorilla mask to focus attention on the issues rather than their personal celebrity. Each adopts the name of a woman artist from the past who the group feels has not received full recognition for her talent. (Frida Kahlo was a Mexican artist who during her lifetime was eclipsed by her husband, artist Diego Rivera).
Kahlo went on to say that the group decided to maintain its agitprop work, however unpopular it may be in the current climate of patriotic solidarity, "after both [U.S. fundamentalist preacher]Jerry Falwell, and the Taliban, said that women were to blame for the current crisis. That really decided it for us."
The group is also opposed to the reflexive use of violence by the U.S. government as a response to the terrorist attack. "As women, we ask ourselves how we can tell children to resolve disputes non-violently, when our government's first response to a challenge is guns and death."
In line with the group's policy of what she calls "friendly ridicule" of male bellicosity, it has produced a poster of what Kahlo calls an "estrogen bomb." Dropped into the middle of Afghanistan, it would induce both sides to recognize the futility of violence.
"The patriotism we're seeing is protective, but when it becomes offensive, and by that I mean, taking offensive actions against others, then it's wrong."
Kahlo's speech attracted several hundred mostly female attendees. Some of the younger ones suggested that things have gotten better for women and questioned the relevance of the group's hardline feminism. Kahlo acknowledged that the message has been heard in the visual arts world, where once-hostile male newspaper critics now acknowledge the Guerrilla Girls as a useful influence. "But there's still a lot of underhanded resistance. Tokenism now calls itself multiculturalism, which seems to mean one black or one woman artist in the whole museum."
The group is also extending its activities to the other arts. It has recently attacked the organizers of the Broadway Tony Awards and Hollywood's Oscars for their refusal to acknowledge women directors (no woman has won a directing Oscar).
And it continues to turn up embarrassing historical research, such as the fact that in 19th-century New York nearly 20 per cent of women had to prostitute themselves at some time in their lives in order to survive. "And today, a hundred years after women got the vote, we still have a religious right trying to blame us for everything that is wrong in the world," added Kahlo. "So we're going to keep going, and we're going to keep our sense of humour."