Guerrilla Girls at SF Public Library: The art of feminist activism

Namratha Kethineni

Staff Writer

San Francisco Public Library’s “One City One Book” campaign brought the feminist activist group the Guerilla Girls (pictured) in for a panel. PHOTO COURTESY OF ANDREW HINDRAKER

The San Francisco Public Library’s “One City One Book” campaign encourages members of the community to read socially-relevant books together, followed by group discussions of their subject matter. This year’s theme focused on social activism and equality in race and gender. 

In addition to choosing books for the reading list, the library also hosts authors and activists to discuss how they bring action to the themes presented in the readings, while giving them a chance to promote their work. The Guerilla Girls, a five-person group of feminist artists, were invited to provide their perspectives on activism at SF Public Library’s panel on March 25. These women use humorous and often boisterous visuals to explain their views on gender, ethnic bias, and political corruption.

Anissa Malady, the Adult Services Coordinator for the Guerrilla Girls, said in an email, “‘One City One Book’ is SFPL’s largest literary campaign. Thanks to our friends of the San Francisco Public Library sponsorship, we get the opportunity to partner with so many other dazzling creators, city partners, scholars and educators.”

A unique feature of the Guerilla Girls’ aesthetic is wearing gorilla masks at public appearances to maintain anonymity and ensure that the focus of their projects is centered on its message, rather than on group members. 

The Guerilla Girls also refer to themselves as famous women artists to preserve anonymity; “Frida Kahlo” and “Kathe Kollwitz” were the members who attended the panel. During the event, “Kahlo” and “Kollwitz” celebrated and discussed the launch of the group’s new book, “The Art of Behaving Badly.”  

The book is the group’s first and it outlines the events of their career from their founding in New York City in 1985 until now. It specifically describes their street campaigns, media experiences, and exhibitions that they’ve been involved in throughout the past 35 years, and emphasizes the global impact that the group has had in the realm of feminist activism. 

In addition to promoting their new book, “Kahlo” and “Kollwitz” discussed other works they’ve produced and provided the audience with a holistic explanation of what they’re about. “We keep chipping away. Our motto is: ‘Do one thing. If it doesn’t work, do another. If it doesn’t work, do another anyway,’” “Kahlo” said during the event. The panel discussion was recorded and is now available to watch for free on YouTube

Malady explained how the Guerilla Girls’ work related to the reading campaign, which included the book “Know My Name,” a memoir written by Chanel Miller — who was sexually assaulted by infamous Stanford student Brock Turner in 2015 — speaking out against sexual violence and rape.

“[These subjects] relate to the Guerrilla Girls’ longtime objectives. Miller’s exhibition is a reminder of women artists before her, and also of the work that still needs to be done in dismantling institutional racism and sexism,” Malady said. 

The Guerilla Girls said they hoped that the event, in combination with the SFPL campaign’s recommended reading list, would inspire people to continue to think critically about institutions in society. 

“Activism is a forever fight. Change is glacial. Looking at this history of the Guerrilla Girls makes one realize the fight continues, and even more so, as structural racism is ingrained in all of our institutions, libraries, and museums included,” Malady said. 

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