A Conversation with Donna Kaz

The Guerrilla Girls, known for their gorilla face masks and creative protest, are a mostly anonymous collective of feminist, artist activists. Their work has centered on pointing out sexism in the arts, ranging from galleries to theater. One of their most celebrated posters, affixed in Soho and East Village, NYC, in 1989 asked the rhetorical question, "Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?" It was followed with a statistic: "Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art Sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female." The group has also created banners and stickers to spread awareness about the overwhelming majority of art funding going to white, male artists. Most recently, the Guerrilla Girls participated in the Women's March following the 2016 presidential election. They remain a powerful force, continuing to point out discrimination across all artistic fields. 

Bunny Zine spoke with Donna Kaz, who used the moniker Aphra Behn—after the seventeenth century poet and playwright—while working with the Guerrilla Girls. Kaz recently published her memoir, Un/Masked: Memoirs of a Guerrilla Girl on Tour. The memoir explores her activism, overcoming adversity and how activists can continue to push against the patriarchy. 

 

Bunny Zine: What is your favorite memory about being a Guerrilla Girl? Is there a particular demonstration or action that stands out in your mind? 

Donna Kaz: Both of the demonstrations we did at the TONY awards (in 1999 and 2000) stand out because in 1999 not one single woman had won a TONY for directing in the 52 year history of the Awards. That was such a horrible statistic we really believed that once people knew, the theatre would change immediately.  We were so wrong about that!  Our first TONY action got very little attention, so for our second one we invited the ART CHEERLEADERS (from Boston) to be our loud, chanting voices and we invited the public as well to be Guerrilla Girls for a day (complete with paper bag masks). It was the largest demonstration the Guerrilla Girls had organized on our own.  Perhaps I was too naive or maybe I did not learn from the first protest, but the producers of the TONY’s and the Broadway stars in attendance did not pay us much attention. One producer came out to talk to us and basically told us he did not support us (people HATE to be accused of being discriminatory). Alex Baldwin was there and he showed interest in knowing what we were protesting but we did not hear from him again, even though he promised to follow up.  At the 2000 TONY protest we all were ordered to remove our masks or be arrested and we chose to leave.  That night, two women were nominated for TONY’s for direction and neither won. It was depressing. So why am I choosing that moment to talk about here?  Because it shows how hard it can be and how long one has to fight in order to see any change. 

BZ: I'm interested in the concept of being masked and then taking that mask off. What sort of power lies in wearing a mask, but also why do you think it's important to unmask? 

DK: In a mask you take on another persona – you say things you would never say without the mask.  You speak up, are bold and don’t give a shit about what anyone thinks of you. You become unafraid of being ostracized for standing up for what you believe in because no one knows who you really are.  BUT, there comes a time when you reflect on that and think, “Gee, it’s pathetic that I have to wear this mask to say what I really think or to get anyone to pay attention to me.” So I came to the conclusion that unmasking would be just as powerful. And it has been. I am the same person with or without the mask. I am talking about the same issues of sexism and discrimination because they still exist and are important issues to keep bringing up. Now I can tell the story of my journey as a feminist masked avenger and share the tactics I used as a Guerrilla Girl and Guerrilla Girl On Tour. The problems I was addressing 20 years ago remain, in many ways, unchanged. The Guerrilla Girls did do a lot to get people to talk about sexism in theatre and the theatre has made some progress in terms of being more diverse and inclusive, but we sill have a long way to go.  Unmasked, I feel as if I am able to get my personal journey of being discriminated against in the arts out there. People have related to it. So both masked and unmasked have advantages and disadvantages.

BZ: What do you want readers to walk away with after reading your memoir? 

DK: feeling of joy and inspiration.  I would hope that anyone who reads UN/MASKED, Memoirs of a Guerrilla Girl On Tour will feel that they can overcome adversity as I did. I also hope they would be inspired to find their own ways to push up against this patriarchal world and find a welcoming place inside of it.

BZ: How have feminism/gendered issues changed over the course of your career as an activist? How do the Guerrilla Girls respond to those changes? 

Issues are constantly evolving. In the beginning we were just concerned with women and artists of color but quickly discovered that diversity had so many layers and that class, race and gender as well as other layers be added to the equation. Over the years we went from looking at LGBT issues to LGBTQI issues to LGBTQQIP2SAA issues. A lot of times it felt like we could not even keep up because so much was happening and being written about and discussed. Touring the world really helped. By speaking to different women and men from all over the globe we learned a lot and put all it back into our work.

BZ: Do you see the art world becoming more inclusive? Or is it still pretty white/male dominated? 

DK: I think all the arts are still pretty much white/male dominated, especially in the big museums and on Broadway – the places where artists make the most money. But there is progress.  No longer do you see many exhibits that do not include women or theatre companies that produce only plays by white men.

BZ: What more needs to be done to ensure women/people of color/LGBTQI people are acknowledged and respected as much as their white, male counterparts in artistic spaces?

DK: Education. We all must have a place at the table. We need to get that message out to all, beginning with children. There needs to be a coming together from all sides to make this a reality.  A lot of times there is conflict between two groups working for the same purpose and I think we must listen to each other more. We all have to march/protest with each other for every worthy cause. 

BZ: Any advice for young activists who are just now getting involved? 

Organize. Work in small groups. Pick your battles (you can’t fight them all at once). Learn how to play defense. Practice self care – cookies and long walks are good. Do not ever lose hope.