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Why You Shouldn’t Underestimate the Radical Creativity of the Gorilla Girls!

By Karla Schlaepfer
creativity and art, ai weiwei, artist, arttalks, cologne, gorilla girls, museum ludwig, social change

Creativity has many faces. Everyone can access their creativity to help solve problems, see different perspectives and feel more confident about trying new things. Creative minds are open (and messy!) and want to shape the world around them. Enabling your confident creativity lets you make the most of your experiences and be prepared to learn from mistakes as part of the process. But what about artists? Visual and preforming artists whose self-expression and probing minds create works of art that make us rethink who we are and what we stand for? Those radical creatives who challenge the status quo and, at the same time, our values.

For the sake of this blog text, let’s agree that the role of the radical creative artist is to disturb, question and unsettle. They break the mold, reset the clock and innovate.  They get involved with political issues because they care and they want to provoke change.  But does this make for good art?

The Gorilla Girls

My first example, the Gorilla Girls were formed in 1985 as a reaction to the lack of female artist representation in major New York museum shows. The original Gorillas donned gorilla (guerilla) masks to protect their anonymity when appearing publicly. They sought out direct contact with their audience on the street and in educational arenas to express their opinions and concerns about a variety of social topics. Their protests use facts and humor to nudge people out of their comfort zones. They say they use “information in a surprising, transgressive manner” in their cooperative exhibitions, poster series, demonstrations, speeches, educational seminars and books. Although the original group has long since splintered into fractions, the gorilla girls are credited, above all, with sparking dialogue and bringing national and international attention to issues of sexism and racism within the arts.

“We believe that some discrimination is conscious and some is unconscious and that we can embarrass the perpetrators into changing their ways. We don’t do posters and actions that simply point to something and say, ‘This is bad,’ like a lot of political art. We try to twist an issue around and present it in a way that hasn’t been seen before, using facts and humor, in the hope of changing people’s minds.”

Getting people to pause and take a second look.

Awareness About Our Institutions

And awareness is the first step towards change. There continues to be huge gender gap in the cultural arts. And this although the cultural business world claims to be liberal and progressive. According to a study presented by the Cultural Minister Monika Grütters “Frauen in Kultur and Medien”, female artists earn with the sales of their work on an average of 24% less of what their male colleagues do. It is not much better for female musicians or performers either!

Not only questioning the policies of art institutions—who gets in and who is out?—but questioning in itself is a subject and driver in art.  Self-questioning is an important motivator for artists and game changers. Creativity can be likened to like mining; we sometimes need to dig deep to discover and uncover ourselves. Artist use radical creativity to ask disconcerting and provoking questions.

Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei, the most famous living Chinese artist, is my second example. He is constantly questioning the world around him. As a prominent critic of the Communist regime and a political activist for human rights, he spent time in jail in China before he was allowed to leave the country. He now lives in Berlin.

Ai Weiwei has pulled down the barrier that most people keep between their public and their real self by using his own experiences with the Chinese regime as subject for his art. He was one of the first artists to use social media intensively to gain international exposure. His conceptual artworks are often sculptural installations or documentations using objects that carry another meaning when placed in an art context. Weiwei is a controversial artist, a radical provoker.  He has filmed himself in the hospital, documenting his fight back to health after a severe beating by the Chinese secret police. The images are disturbingly immediate.

His recent installations shine a spotlight on the fate of Europe’s refugees and make us shiver when we allow ourselves to feel the fate of those symbolized by the life vests.  We the viewers are jolted out of our comfort zones. This kind of realism, stirs us out of our sense of complacency and forces us to ask ourselves uncomfortable questions about our values, our society and probing questions about ourselves. It can be a wake-up call. Can it be good art?

Both of the above artists/artist groups are making brand-new pieces to be shown in Cologne’s Museum Ludwig’s 40th birthday exhibition. Join me for an ArtTalk on Sept. 1 ( or visit the show in Cologne. It runs until January 2017 so let us know what you think if you do visit!