Profiles in Art: Zubeida Agha of the Guerrilla Girls

Zubeida Agha is a member of the Guerrilla Girls, a feminist arts collective based in New York City. And before you get confused about why we are interviewing a late Modernist painter from Pakistan-that isn’t her real name.  Founded in the late 1980’s, the Guerrilla Girls are a group of artist and art professionals from the art world that operate under pseudonyms of deceased female artists. Throughout the years they have used posters and different social campaigns to raise questions about representation and equality in our museums and textbooks. We are honored for the opportunity to talk to Zubeida about her journey through the art world and her activism.

Cover Image: Guerrilla Girls at the Abrons Art Center, 2015. Photo © Andrew Hinderer

Q: What is your “falling in love with art” story? How and when did you know that you wanted to enter the art world?

I always knew – It wasn’t a ‘decision’ more like an inescapable fate.

Q: What inspires/motivates you?

Injustice & discrimination (not inspiring but motivates me to keep going).

Q: How did you become a Guerilla Girl?

I get this question a lot – and often it’s because people want to join the group themselves. The bad news is that we can’t invite everyone, as much as we’d love to. Joining the GGs is like joining a rock band – it depends on who is available, who meshes well with the rest of the gang, and who has skills that the group needs. But the good news is you don’t need to be a Guerrilla Girl to do the kind of activism we do – Everyone should form their OWN anonymous masked feminist group! Wouldn’t that be amazing? Hundreds of feminist masked avengers!

My GG origin story is actually very boring. When I was in college, I was part of a student arts group that invited the GGs to our campus – I stayed in touch with them after I graduated and we reconnected in person once I moved to NYC. The rest, as they say, is history. This was close to 10 years ago!

Q: How did you choose your GG alias?

At the time that I joined the group I was learning about modern art from Pakistan. Zubeida Agha was a pioneer in Pakistan’s modern art scene but she is not given the attention that her male counterparts received. I adopted her name with the hopes that everyone who interacts with me will go and Google her!

The Advantages of Being A Woman Artist, 1988

Q: What is your favorite project/campaign that you’ve worked on with the Guerrilla Girls?

That’s like asking me to pick a favorite child! I’ve loved every project I’ve been involved with….but I think ‘Is it Even Worse in Europe’ might be my favorite. We sent 400 European museum/kunsthalle directors a questionnaire about diversity – only a third responded and the answers were VERY entertaining.

Q: What is the funniest/snarkiest/generally most memorable reaction someone has had to either you as a member of GG or to GG’s work in general?

A few years ago a reporter asked me what right the GGs had to address race in our work…I was so confused…then I realized that I was wearing a mask, a long sleeved shirt, and jeans…I had to roll up my sleeves to show her the color of my skin (I’m a woman of color) and that seemed to answer the question. I still think about that exchange a lot – for one, it made me realize that our anonymity has hidden how diverse the group has always been and secondly…how problematic it was that I had to ‘prove’ my color to legitimize our dissatisfaction with racial discrimination!

Q: Do you have any unexpected skills/things you’ve needed to “learn on the job” since joining GG?

How to deal with mask-hair.

Q: Where do you see the Guerrilla Girls in 10-20 years?

Celebrating our first WOC (Editors’ note: Woman of Color) president.

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges/hurdles of your professional career (either with GG or in your “day job”)?

As a GG – all the elaborate lies I have to tell my friends to conceal my GG identity.

Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?, 2012

Q: Who is a female artist that you think everyone should know about but don’t?

Zubeida Agha.

Q: What is the best piece of advice someone ever gave you? Or what advice would you give to your younger self/someone just starting in the field?

Make cheap art.

Q: Parents may discourage their children from pursuing a career in the arts out of financial concern, and now more perhaps out of political concern as the arts are openly under attack. How would you address those concerns? How can we foster creativity and creative thoughts?

Those financial concerns aren’t unjustified – The art world is like an olympics where a few are rewarded and everyone else struggles. And this is being exacerbated by the growing influence of BIG MONEY on art. Artists need to sell their work to make a living. They need galleries and museums to show their art. But these galleries and museums are dependent on billionaire art collectors to fund their programs. These collectors want to see artists that are in their collection in these programs. So if you are an artist making work that doesn’t appeal to the super-wealthy – you are going to have a VERY hard time surviving.

We want artists to reject this system – we want them to create an alternative art world where they are not dependent on a cartel of dealers, institutions, and collectors.

Being an arts worker is not financially stable either – The art world runs on an insane amount of free labour – we need to end this straight away not only to improve the lives of those who work in the arts but also to remove the barriers of entry that ‘unpaid-internships’ erect.

We can’t let the political concerns frighten us into silence.

Q: What is one thing you would like the general public to know about the art world?

It’s not a meritocracy.

Trump Announces New Commemorative Months, 2016

Q: How does the rhetoric of the Trump administration affect your efforts for equality in the art world?

It has made us angrier, bolder, and louder.

Q: The new administration has ushered in a new era of civic engagement but for many it might be the first time engaging in activism. Why is it important to be involved? What are some concrete action items that anyone can do?

Nothing will change unless we become involved. And we need to be involved at EVERY level. Everyone should know what their local representatives are doing – what is your local council member working on? Do they accurately represent your concerns.

Q: Do you have any advice for artists (specifically) in the age of Trump?

Well done – you are at the forefront of the resistance. Stay vigilant. Don’t normalize this hateful administration. Always question what your art is being used for.

Q: What is your favorite way to unwind/practice self-care?

Eat a banana.

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