- Courtesy Of Lyn Hughes Photography
Long before the #MeToo movement, when members of radical women-led activist groups like Pussy Riot and FEMEN were still in diapers, the Guerrilla Girls were hard at work calling attention to sexism in the art world. Preserving their anonymity with their now-iconic gorilla masks, the Guerrilla Girls arrived on the scene in 1985. Their cheeky and confrontational performances, ad campaigns and ephemera have been proliferating ever since.
Nearly 20 years after she first donned the Guerilla Girl uniform in 1997, playwright and performer Donna Kaz — alias Aphra Behn — took off her mask, literally and figuratively, with the 2016 publication of UN/MASKED: Memoirs of a Guerrilla Girl on Tour. In the book, Kaz chronicles her path to becoming an artist and activist and speaks openly about the domestic abuse she suffered from actor William Hurt.
Now, New York City-based Kaz, 64, is traveling the country with her talk "Push/Pushback: Nine Steps to Make a Difference With Art and Activism." She'll speak at the University of Vermont's Fleming Museum of Art on Tuesday, October 30, preceded by a poster-making workshop at the Hive Collective in Burlington's South End on the evening of Monday, October 29.
In advance of her appearance, Seven Days talked with Kaz about her life as a Guerrilla Girl and the significance of rage in art and activism.
SEVEN DAYS: First things first. How did you choose your alter ego's name, and what can you tell us about Aphra Behn?
DONNA KAZ: Aphra was a 17th-century playwright — the first woman to make a living as a writer in the United Kingdom. She wrote plays, poetry and prose. She wrote under a pseudonym many times, and she was also a spy under Charles II. She seemed to be the perfect Guerrilla Girl. Since I'm a theater artist, I chose her because she was a really cool pioneer for women writers and playwrights. Her name also had the same number of syllables as mine, which made it easier.
SD: You joined Guerrilla Girls in 1997. Can you speak to how the group dynamics and priorities may have shifted in the past couple of decades?
DK: The Girls had been around since 1985, [and] they were experiencing a little bit of burnout. People were leaving, people were tired — so they decided to invite girls to the group who were not necessarily visual artists. I was invited with a handful of women who were more into performing, and we formed Guerrilla Girls on Tour. The majority of the work[s] were actions against discrimination of women in theater, like stickering the Roundabout Theatre [Company in New York City with stickers reading, "In this theatre, the taking of photographs, the use of recording devices, and the production of plays by women are strictly prohibited"]. They hadn't produced a play by a woman in 12 years. And after we did the stickers, they produced a play by a woman.
In 2000, the Girls experienced what we now refer to as the Banana Split. There was a lot of rumbling in the group about the direction we should be going, and we decided to split into three new and separate groups. The theater group became Guerrilla Girls on Tour, there's a Guerrilla Girls Inc. and then there's Guerrilla Girls BroadBand, which is made up of the younger members. Our belief is, the more Guerrilla Girls out there, the better. We need all the Guerrilla Girls we can get.
SD: Can you say how many Guerrilla Girls there are?
DK: I can only say that there are hundreds of women that have gone through the group. Guerrilla Girls on Tour has [approximately] 15 to 30 members; we function more like a touring theater company.
SD: How did you feel when the #MeToo movement took hold, and why do you think it's emerged the way it has?
DK: It's a braided story. I went back and decided to explore how I became a feminist. When I was an undergraduate, I was sexually assaulted by a college professor. I graduated and moved to New York, and within three months, I met a rising actor named William Hurt. I became involved with him for three-plus years, and we had a relationship that was filled with violence. So I'm a domestic violence survivor.
[The book] came out almost a year before the #MeToo movement. I felt very alone when it came out. It had been 35 years since I had gone through this horrible experience, and it was time for me to tell my story. I wanted to write the book to tell my story, but also to share how the process of disclosure can be a slow one — that's what happened to me. I really felt it was important to tell it at this point in my life, but I didn't want to write a book to say that everyone should tell their story. I did feel very alone and scared; I had to get liability insurance, and I had to get lawyers to look at my material.
When the #MeToo movement happened, I was actually shocked — and relieved. I thought, Wow, I was in front of the wave. I don't think there's any way we can ever go back.
SD: Can you talk about the role of rage in fueling both your art and your activism?
DK: Rage is a good thing, because it's connected to our feelings and what we're passionate about — we need rage in order to effect change. There has to be a sense of urgency in any kind of activist art: This must change now. Time is of the essence.
We have a president who is, among other things, rude, disrespectful, name-calling, sexist — a sexual predator, actually. This fact alone is making people angry and wanting to do something. As I say in my talk, it's a great time to be a feminist. Feminism is making a comeback; it's a swift wind through the country. [And] when I talk about feminism, I'm talking about intersectional feminism, not white, cisgender feminism. I [still] think we have a long ways to go to gather everyone up into the movement.
SD: Do you have a particularly proud Guerilla Girl moment?
DK: When we started addressing sexism in theater, nobody was talking about it. We thought we really just needed to educate the public about how sexist the theater was, and it would change — but that didn't happen. But today there are lots of organizations working towards gender parity in theater. I'm also proud of the fact that theaters no longer try to get away with seasons of plays by all white men. The theater looks the way it does now because we raised awareness.
SD: Where do you look for feminist art inspiration?
DK: As a Guerrilla Girl, I don't like to talk about anyone in particular. I think that anyone who is fighting oppression is admirable and inspirational. From someone who can sign petitions and click around the internet to show their support, to the people who got arrested at the Judicial Committee hearings on [Brett] Kavanaugh, to artists who have made political art exposing sexism and discrimination, to women who are running for office and saying, "Time's up."