“You know, after a while, wearing that rubber gorilla mask is really hard,” said Donna Kaz. She was describing one of the stranger realities of her double life. For the last 20 years, Kaz has worked as an artist/playwright deftly navigating the New York City theater world– this was the serious, successful woman I met at a coffee shop in Midtown last week. But for the rest of it, she’s donned a gorilla mask, deterred neither by sweat nor fear of suffocation. (Hell, even furries, the most diehard animal-suit lovers, agree that wearing such restrictive headgear can be punishing.)
The disguise has helped hide her identity, but it’s also served as a way for Kaz and an influential group of women artists known as the Guerrilla Girls, a “secret society” of activists, to assume new ones.
In Un/Masked, Kaz’s new memoir due out November 1, Kaz details her parallel existence as Aphra Behn, a Guerrilla Girl devoted to realizing gender equality in theater and in the art world.
As the story goes, the Guerrilla Girls started in 1985 when a group of women artists decided that they were fed up with the harsh realities they faced working in a white/male-dominated art world– namely, the dismal prospects for success, old boys’ club-style networking, and the relentless onslaught of sexism, gender stereotyping, sexual harassment, and straight-up mansplaining from mentors, colleagues, gatekeepers, patrons, gallerists, curators, and critics alike. The underlying message of all this– sometimes delivered at the tail end of a joke or, in some cases, explicitly laid out– is that women are second-class citizens with no place in the professional art world. A not uncommon piece of advice? Just a thought, little lady, but you’d be much better off staying home, popping out babies, and maybe becoming an art teacher if your husband allows for it. Maybe.
The flashpoint was a 1984 exhibition at MoMA, An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture. If that title sounds like yawn city, the show’s bleak roster confirms it: of the 165 artists from 17 countries included in it, only around a dozen of them were women.
Kaz joined the group much later, in 1997, but she still participated in a high point of the Guerrilla Girls’ activism.
“A lot of groups don’t have longevity, and that’s understandable too, people do burn out,” she explained during our interview. “The only reason why Guerrilla Girls survived is that we went through a very difficult time and worked through it.”
In 2000, however, the original activist network went through a so-called “banana split,” when some of the members splintered off into separate branches: the Guerrilla Girls on Tour– Kaz’s theatre-oriented faction– and Guerrilla Girls Broadband, a group more interested in internet-based activism.
But it wasn’t such a sweet retreat– two OG Guerrilla Girls who had identified publicly as Frida Kahlo and Käthe Kollwitz filed a lawsuit against the two departed factions. As it turns out, going to court required the Girls to reveal their true identities and two conceptual artists named Jerilea Zempel and Erika Rothenberg emerged from the shadows. The defendants were also named, but they didn’t go down without a fight– according to the New Yorker “Judge Stanton rejected as ‘bizarre’ the defendants’ suggestion that they be allowed to testify in his courtroom while wearing their gorilla masks.“
Many of the Girls have said that the legal battle was both a personally painful experience and a dramatic distraction from the activist message, but Kaz doesn’t make a big to-do about it in the book. In fact, she writes that the split was an opportunity for the Guerrilla Girls on Tour to become “more like an activist theater company,” which would allow them “to smash through the walls that remain between us and the audience.”
Instead of focusing on the nuances of the split and its aftermath, Kaz’s memoir covers the earlier moments of her activist career and more importantly the gnarly path through sexism, self-doubt, and even an affair with a violent “movie star” who abused Kaz for more than a decade over the course of their tumultuous on-again/off-again relationship, all of which led her to become, at least in part, Aphra Behn.
Like every Guerrilla Girl, Kaz selected a famous woman artist and assumed her name during any and all of the group’s actions. Kaz writes that she knew immediately who she would select for her pseudonym. “She wrote bawdy plays with feminist themes. She has the same number of syllables as my real name. I take Aphra Behn as my Guerrilla Girl pseudonym and for almost two decades get as comfortable answering to it as to the name I was born with.”
Behn was a multitalented 17th-century British poet and playwright whose accomplishments actually read a lot like Kaz’s own as a fiction writer, poet, playwright, performer, visual artist, and activist. Kaz describes herself as an artist who creates “socially conscious art and theater”– it’s a body of work that she feels is inexorably tied to her activism. Likewise, her career didn’t really take off until Kaz discovered the true potential of instincts that she’s had for a long time.
“I’ve always felt a sense of injustice in the world,” she recalled. “I think it’s because I grew up in the ‘60s, when there was a lot of racial tension just every day— not that there isn’t now– but I was just hyperaware of it. I just always had this passion for trying to do my best to make wrongs right, and I just always felt like an artist. That’s why I never separated the two.”
Growing up, however, Kaz said that all her role models were men– something that put her in a somewhat vulnerable position. “I never had any female role models, period,” she writes, and recalls having made it to college without women artists or writers to look up to. She was lucky in that her parents were supportive. “Growing up I was really nurtured in whatever I wanted to do, but then the outside world gave me this totally different story.”
As Kaz details in her memoir spanning 35 years of her life, she noticed a large gap between her private persona and the limitations placed on her as a woman by the outside world. On the one hand, there are her memories of summers spent at Girl Scout camp with her girl gang– their “world without borders” was replete with creativity and fun, including pranks like the one that involved flinging a “flaming ball of gasoline-soaked Kotex pads” across the grounds. And then there’s Kaz as the self-conscious young woman who’s convinced of her “self-assessed mediocrity.”
It’s not until much later, when Kaz comes to terms with the abusive relationship she was caught up in for over a decade, and admits that she’s a “survivor,” that she finally begins to reconcile what she refers to as a “split in selves.”
Kaz eventually realizes that she can be the person she wants to be– an artist– without anyone’s permission or approval.
This “split in selves” is experienced by many disenfranchised people– women and people of color included– and plays out as feeling a great deal of pressure to be anything but ourselves. One poster made by the Guerrilla Girls in 1989 offers a nice parallel. It includes an image of a woman, sprawled out and nude, clearly poising as model for a painting or sculpture of some sort and asks, “Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get into the Met. Museum?” The answer, unfortunately, was yes– 85 percent of the nudes included in the Modern Art section were of female subjects, while less than 5 percent of the artists whose work appeared in the section were women.
The obvious message is about the extreme inequality that existed in 1989– it’s one that still holds true today, let’s be real. But the implied context is how sexism, abusive partners, and societal strictures– all intertwining mechanisms of patriarchy– that devalue entire groups of people reinforce a fissure between the idealized, objectified woman and the actual, independent, educated, creative, artistic woman who’s just as capable of holding a paintbrush as any male artist.
The book might be a super bleak one without the importance Kaz places on humor, something she pointed to repeatedly during our conversation as well. While the Guerrilla Girls’ tone was revolutionary, she said that everyone recognized how important it was to have fun in the process. You know, just like the old adage that says little girls are made of “sugar and spice and everything nice.” How about barf?
“We need anything to lighten up the mood, we need humor,” Kaz recalled. “Because as a feminist, it’s rough out there, it’s really hard for women.”
The result is an iconic, immediately recognizable Guerrilla Girls style splattered across deadly serious posters that became works of art in their own right. The Girls on Tour continue that tradition with slapstick, “self-deprecating humor, and song-and-dance” at their public actions. Think Pussy Riot, only swap out the internet for printed posters and take away the Russian prison sentences and awkward conversion to sparkly pop stars.
The comedy factor not only helped overturned stereotypes about feminists being hairy, humorless stiffs, but along with the masks it also helped turn the attention away from the Guerrilla Girls’ true identities. (Well, maybe the masks confirmed the hairy part?) Since they were engaging in the public shaming of powerful institutions including theatre companies, museums, and galleries, and assailing important individual gatekeepers of the art world, the risk for the activists (all of them working artists) was very high. Or so they thought.
“In the beginning I thought, ‘Everyone’s going to try to rip my mask off and discover who I was,’” Kaz recalled. “But no one really cared. I think that the people who we were naming could easily dismiss us as being ridiculous clowns in disguises.” And as she recounts in the book, many people who were threatened by the Guerrilla Girls’ demands did just that– including one “important theater director” who accused the activists of being “chicken.”
The Girls have guarded their true identities to varying degrees of seriousness and success over the years. “It’s always been up to each Guerrilla Girl who they tell– some women tell their significant others and their families, others don’t like to tell a lot of people,” Kaz told me. “Certainly [there was] no one in the art world or in the performing art world I ever told.”
But the disguise wasn’t solely about concealing the activists’ identities or being funny. “With black rubber gorilla masks over their heads, the Guerrilla Girls instantly turned themselves into modern masked avengers in the tradition of the Lone Ranger, Zorro, and Catwoman,” she writes in the book.
Separately, I told Kaz that, to me, the gorilla masks have always made the activists seem sorta like superheroes.
She smiled. “You know, it really never hit me until I did my first public performance as a Guerrilla Girl and I saw all the people who really looked up to us and were inspired by us and that’s when I realized the power of the mask,” she mused. “With the mask on you have a lot more power because you’ve taken away your own self as an artist, and now you’re just focused on the issue.”
There was one major criticism of the Guerrilla Girls and similarly-minded feminists hanging over our conversation that had to be cleared up: What was the point of fighting for equality in the art world, an elite stratosphere whose problems were only really in the realm of privileged, middle-to-upper class white people with a backpack full of diplomas and the world at their fingertips? Weren’t there more pressing concerns for women in America? What about women of color– already disenfranchised when it comes to work, pay, healthcare, you name it– whose communities, families, and loved ones suffer the unequal burden of police brutality and incarceration? What about women and girls in the developing world who are treated like commodities and sexual currency by the West?
Both the original Guerrilla Girls and the On Tour faction eventually included discrimination against other groups, including people of color, on their activist kill list. Still, I wondered– what’s the connection between the art world and the real world?
“The connection is that, in any place on earth, if you don’t have equality if effects everything else,” Kaz said. “When the war broke out, after 9/11 when we were working, people were saying to us, ‘There are so many more important issues, why are you concerned with gender parity in theater? There’s a war going on.’ We would just remind people that we’re working toward equality and diversity and inclusion and that has to take place across the board. If there’s one part of the apple that’s rotten, it effects everything else. I do think it’s important to have women’s equality everywhere, so it’s just as worthy an issue.”
Of course, there’s still a lot of work to be done. In fact, Kaz says that the art world has made more progress than theatre. She pointed out that there’s only one production written by a woman that made it to Broadway this year. “It’s Lillian Hellman– and she’s dead,” she laughed. “It’s ridiculous.”
Kaz did concede that there’s another common criticism leveled against the Guerrilla Girls on Tour. “Women are making art in the trenches. We’re not in the museums, we’re not on Broadway. We’re creating this stuff off-off-off-off Broadway, in galleries, in the streets. We are not given the attention or the focus of the media that male artists are. So do we stop? No, we address these issues through our art, we address violence against women through our art too, and that’s also a way to heal the world and to promote equality. So, we do it in all these different ways.”
“Un/Masked: Memoirs of a Guerrilla Girl on Tour” by Donna Kaz, out November 1 from Skyhorse Publishing. Book launch is happening Tuesday November 1, 7 pm at Word bookstore in Greenpoint. A reading will take place the following week, Thursday November 10 at Bluestockings on the Lower East Side.