This piece originally appeared in the Strand Magazine's April 2020 "The Female Empowerment" Issue
A recent exhibition at the Tate Modern highlights the work of the anonymous group ‘Guerrilla Girls’. Through donning gorilla masks, this group of artists post blazing feminist slogans in the form of billboards, posters, and public appearances. The group was formed in 1975 in New York City dubbed the cultural centre of the western world – one only has to walk the streets of 53rd to find The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Met, and many others. These museums are the setting to the Guerrilla Girls’ mission of ‘culture-jamming’. Culture-jamming is a form of subvertising, a practise of criticising often corporate advertising in the mass media. It in itself is a form of artwork through parody encouraging self-reflection. This jamming is how the Guerrilla Girls have been criticising the flaws in representation, where ‘billionaires defined what our visual culture is’.
In the Tate’s video interview, Guerrilla Girls: You have to Question what you See, the mask-donned members explained that art was a white masculine sphere of influence with no one was asking why. The significant lack of female artists and artists of colour was continuously excused, despite the existence of talented female and minority creatives. The group published lists of names, galleries, and statistics that highlighted the underrepresentation occurring in almost every gallery in New York City. Combining comedy, satire, and provocative slogans, the Guerrilla Girls aimed to produce digestible material that would pressure those in all tiers of the art world: the buyer, seller, collector, and gallery owner. At its core, the group wants to provoke, not pressure, people to question what is not there, what they are not seeing, when it should be there.
To continue this exploration of activism in art, I spoke to artist Ellie Turley, who is based in South London. We spoke extensively about her projects’ focus on female portrayal in mass media and the importance of protest.
Q: What would you say your work is focused on?
Ellie: I tend to explore women’s place in society, body-image, lesbianism and how that’s all portrayed in the media. I use childhood brands and motifs to make it more relatable.
In your opinion, why is art such a powerful medium for modern society? How do you use it to convey your desired message?
E: It’s nice that art is a medium for people can look at. I think a visual presentation is so powerful in conveying important messages of feminism and politics. At first sight, it’s a standard piece of art, yet it’s charged with a specific message or intent, created by the artist. Art is effective because one can choose to look at it. It’s both in your face and not, do you know what I mean? It’s more sublime than yelling your opinion yet it can still be explicit. Someone has to step back and look at it. Despite its creation being subjective, it’s accessible to all in its form.
Why do you choose to focus on women’s portrayal in media in particular?
E: I’d say that through experiences in own life, I’ve realised that there’s one ‘idealistic’ way of portraying women: as sex sirens or inherently feminine characters. There is definitely an idea of a prescribed womanhood. I drew literary influence from Frankenstein, where the media is Victor Frankenstein who chooses specific parts of women to build an ideal image. It’s a metaphor for how society sees appearance as somehow fulfilling a checklist.
In your recent ‘IKEA build-a-bitch’ project, how do you explore this further?
E: The whole project is about the idea that modern society can building a woman, who is accessible and easily marketable, much like IKEA products. We truly live in a ‘flatpack society’ – everything is easily consumable, including products to improve self-image. This irony is portrayed in my project. These ‘doll’ women don’t speak back, they’re ready to buy, and are identical; exactly what the media seems to want.
There has certainly been progress in the art community with representation and diversity. Have you seen this change? And how can one contribute to it?
E: Like the Guerrilla Girls emphasised, art can be a medium of activism. I aspire to reflect my desire for change in my artwork. I have definitely seen change in the industry where there has been an increase in collaborations with female and LGBTQ+ artists. I think collaboration is so powerful because it shows the existence of a shared goal. I think a lot about where I show my art, like at other feminist organisations. Spaces that invite and attract a diverse crowd is what my art is about: diversity and inclusion. Saying that, it’s also great to show my art to those who may disagree because it’s still making a statement, through their shock or discomfort. I’m fascinated about how paint on a piece of canvas can make people so uncomfortable.
The Guerrilla Girls exist as the ‘conscious of the art world’: a force to remind us of the underrepresentation of women and minorities in art. Their work has inspired artists like Turley to use art as a force for activism. Art has a distinct ability to invoke reactions, which only emphasises the power of the medium. Art can be revolutionary, and it is in an era of inclusion, collaboration, and diversity. It truly seems that the brush is mightier than the sword in the vehicle of protest.
Tate exhibition link: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/guerrilla-girls-6858/guerrilla-girls-interview-tateshots
Ellie's Instagram: @ellie.turley
1. Ellie Turley
shut up mum im 13 now - (2018)
Beauty Quest series
Showcased at the 'Her Truth' exhibition, Hackney
Spray paint and Acrylic
2. Ellie Turley
Mickey Mouse's Slut Factory' and 'Playboy cyber-sex massacre - (2019)
Two part series
Mixed Media on Canvas
Edited by Godelieve de Bree and Halim Kim