Paris

The Guerrilla Girls and La Barbe at mfc-michèle didier

After thirty years of the Guerrilla Girls presenting statistics that repeatedly show the underrepresentation and misrepresentation of women in public collections, museums, and galleries around the world, one would think that these institutions would have been driven to promote changes en masse, if only out of shame. Yet, as the New York–based feminist group keeps evidencing, the archaic status quo in the art world has proven reluctant to change.

La Barbe. Au patriarcat, les hommes reconnaissants [To the patriarchy, the grateful men]; digital print; 8.3 x 11.7 in. Courtesy of La Barbe. Photo: Charles Duprat.

La Barbe. Au Patriarcat, les Hommes Reconnaissants [To the Patriarchy, the Grateful Men]; digital print; 8.3 x 11.7 in. Courtesy of La Barbe. Photo: Charles Duprat.


In the current exhibition at Parisian gallery mfc-michèle didier, the activism of the Guerrilla Girls is paired with that of La Barbe, a French feminist group formed in 2008 in response to the sexism and unbalanced media coverage received by the then-presidential hopeful Ségolène Royal. Their name is a play on words, referencing both an expression of dismissal out of annoyance (oh, la barbe!) and an aptly chosen prop, the aristocratic beard. The group mockingly wears fake beards when disrupting all kinds of male-dominated events, where they ironically congratulate their fellow men at length for doing such a great job at keeping women invisible.

Through a modest exhibition of well-known works, viewers can follow the actions of the Guerrilla Girls, from their appropriation of Ingres’ Odalisque and Slave to create their iconic poster, Do Women Have to Be Naked to Get Into the Met. Museum? (1989), to a more recent billboard, Disturbing the Peace (2016). Through a series of quotes in Disturbing the Peace, one witnesses the apparently swift continuation of sexism from the times of the Hindu Code of Manu (dated between the 3rd century BCE and the 2nd century CE), which states, “A woman must never be free of subjugation,” to the present-day vociferous speech of Donald Trump.

Guerrilla Girls. Disturbing the Peace, 2016 (installation view); plastic banner; 83 x 118 in. Courtesy of Michèle Didier. Photo: Charles Duprat.

Guerrilla Girls. Disturbing the Peace, 2016 (installation view); plastic banner; 83 x 118 in. Courtesy of Michèle Didier. Photo: Charles Duprat.

In a similar tone, the most recent publication by the Guerrilla Girls (published in 2016 by mfc-michèle didier), The Hysterical Herstory of Hysteria and How It was Cured, From Ancient Times Until Now (2009, 2011, 2016), is a didactic narration in the form of a board book. Available on a table for viewers to read, the book contains the ludicrous and ultimately domineering strategies used by prevailing patriarchies to tame and override the bodies and minds of women.

Unlike the Guerrilla Girls, who call themselves “the consciousness of the art world,” the members of La Barbe have chosen to go beyond art to expose the upsetting picture of social life in the 21st century in the country that gave birth to the Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789. Out of 425 academics registered in the Institut de France, 394 are men; 100 percent of all general attorneys in the past 300 years have been men; 84 percent of experts presented in the media are men, who receive around 25 minutes of airtime, compared to the 1.35 minutes received by their women counterparts; and only once since its creation in 1955 has the Palme d’Or been awarded to a woman. The list goes on, spanning art, culture, economy, politics, science, and sports. Throughout their interventions, the members of La Barbe read aloud these and other statistics[1], a fraction of which can be read in twenty-seven small sheets in the walls of the gallery, each one corresponding to one public action. The tiny, hardly legible texts, arranged as a clean installation privileging bulk over detail, do little to amplify the urgent messages contained therein.

La Barbe. Installation view, forty-two slogans over panels; digital prints, 8.3 x 11.7 in. Courtesy of La Barbe. Photo Charles Duprat.

La Barbe. Installation view, forty-two slogans over panels; digital prints, 8.3 x 11.7 in. Courtesy of La Barbe. Photo: Charles Duprat.

Echoing the culture-jamming strategies of the Guerrilla Girls, La Barbe alters French sayings to create ironic phrases that act as visual punchlines for their interventions. In an adjacent room, visitors face a wall covered by forty-two of these phrases, each printed over a black background and bordered by an ornamented frame. The frame gives the phrases an air of authority that contrasts with the farcicality in some statements and the depressing literality in others: “One of every two men is a man,” “Let the best continue winning,” and “In Cannes, women show their faces, men their films.”

While clearly influenced by the Guerrilla Girls, La Barbe has managed in its relatively short existence to be a non-hierarchical organization with presence in over eight cities in France and a very open platform for anyone who wishes to be part of their actions in a variety of capacities. This approach allows La Barbe to be free from the issues of authorship and creative control that the Guerrilla Girls have recently resolved in court, which prompted two of its most prominent members to reveal their identities after three decades of anonymity.

Guerrilla Girls. Installation view, Guerrilla Girls and La Barbe, 2016, mfc-michèle didier. Photo: Charles Duprat.

Guerrilla Girls. Guerrilla Girls and La Barbe, 2016; installation view, mfc-michèle didier. Photo: Charles Duprat.

As part of the Guerrilla Girls workbook, mfc-michèle didier also got its own history checked. Lying shyly by the gallery’s entrance on an almost imperceptible piece of paper, the record revealed that in its five years of existence, only three exhibitions were by women. When faced with the question of how he was planning to address this in the close future, the editor-turned-gallerist replied with a smile, noting that three out of five exhibitions in the present season will be from women artists.

The Guerrilla Girls and La Barbe will be on view at mfc-michèle didier in Paris, France, through November 12, 2016.

 

[1] A comprehensive list of statistics, sorted by field, can be found on labarbelabarbe.org (section “Cible”) and on ousontlesfemmes.org, a website created by the Societé des Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques, an organization that published earlier this year the results of a five-year study on gender disparity in the field of culture. Their brochure is available for visitors to pick up at the exhibition.

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