An anonymous woman in a gorilla mask visited campus last night to speak to students about the discrimination found in the art world and beyond. The speaker, a founding member of the Guerrilla Girls—an New York City-based collective of anonymous female artists devoted to combating sexism and racism in the art world—goes by the pseudonym “Frida Kahlo” in order to preserve her anonymity.

Formed in 1985, the Guerrilla Girls are known for their protests of social inequality through humorous multimedia and speaking engagements. Primarily in the form of witty, provocative posters using dry humor and statistics, the Guerrilla Girls generate discussion about the lack of diversity found in major institutions in the United States, such as household name museums and Hollywood. 

In her talk, “Kahlo” discussed her experience working as a part of the Guerrilla Girls—what she called the “conscience of the art world”—and described their various projects, including a projection on the Whitney criticizing wealth in the art world that proclaimed: “Art is sooo expensive.” 

“We didn’t do it at the Whitney. We did it on the Whitney,” said Kahlo of the projection. 

Much of what the Guerrilla Girls aim to do is bring awareness to the gender inequality of art in museums and galleries; one poster they made in 2011 states that less than 4 percent of the artists in the modern art section at the Metropolitan Museum of Art are women, although 76 percent of the nude images in the museum are of women. 

“In general, it’s a lot easier to be a male artist than a female artist in terms of being respected and being critiqued,” said June Lei ’18, head of Bowdoin Art Society (BAS). “If the Guerrilla Girls did not do what they did, like in the ’80s, I think we would live in a very different world today in terms of the arts and the way our culture is represented. They’ve done some really important things.” 

Through their striking imagery and biting social commentary, the Guerrilla Girls have created major change in the global art society and sparked a new wave of activism.

“I think there’s a whole generation of artists now who are training to be artists and are rejecting the conventional idea of an artist as someone who produces expensive works of art for rich people,” said “Kahlo.” “Now, art students are rejecting that. And they want to use their skills to improve circumstances in the art.” 

Lei came into contact with “Kahlo” during the summer of 2015 while interning at the Brooklyn Museum. She said that the issues the Guerrilla Girls address are beneficial for all Bowdoin students and emphasized the importance of engaging arts, not only as a solution, but as an avenue to a more equal society.

Following the For Freedoms initiative—a project that brought the works of the only artist-based super political action committee (PAC) to Bowdoin earlier this year—Lei hopes that the Guerilla Girls’ visit will serve to further bridge the gap between art and social activism on campus. 

“I think the arts at Bowdoin can often times feel very removed. My hope is that people see the work of the Guerrilla Girls in the public sphere and they see that it’s a socially relevant thing as a way to get engaged and channel what they are feeling in their experiences of politics and social injustice,” said Lei. “And that they can then use those experiences and create something that speaks to other people.” 

Beyond pushing for social change within museums, the Guerrilla Girls also use their hard-edge humor to spark discourse on civil commitment and social change at universities and colleges across the country.

“Last year, there was this whole conversation surrounding race on campus and so that’s really a nationwide student movement that’s happening,” said Lei. “I think that there’s a certain value to bringing in the big leagues and someone who knows what they are talking about and has a lot of experience with this.”

Kinaya Hassane ’19, who organized the program with Lei, thinks that bringing “Kahlo” to speak on campus can also help address issues that are especially salient given the presidential election.

“[The Guerrilla Girls discuss] broader politics and broader issues of gender and race, and I think now that’s especially relevant, given the fact that we have elected Donald Trump as our president,” said Hassane. 

“I’m an art history major, so the issue of representation in art has always been important to me,” said Hailey Beaman ’18, creative director of the BAS. “Hearing that there are people who are so impassioned about that issue and have been for so long is really inspiring as a young person hoping to go into the art world in some capacity.” 

For Kahlo, the work she’s done over the past 30 years can be summed up in one phrase: “It’s righteous fun.