First the exciting news: Sydney Contemporary has secured one of the original members of New York’s famed underground feminist art protest group the Guerrilla Girls to headline the art fair’s talks program.

The fact that in 2019 we still need the Guerrilla Girls, a group of women artists who have fought for recognition and equality in the visual arts since 1985, is not so exciting.

“Constant work,” is the answer founding member Gerda Taro gives when asked what it will take to achieve gender equality in the art world. “What I have noticed in my long life is that conditions have not changed that much from when I was a young woman.”

It’s not all doom and gloom, as Sydney Contemporary’s line-up of vibrant and diverse artists and gallerists will attest. But it does feel like the rate of progress has been glacial since 1985, when seven women protested against a Museum of Modern Art contemporary exhibition in New York that featured just 13 female artists alongside 156 male.

The group decided to call themselves the Guerrilla Girls, remaining anonymous by donning gorilla masks so their appearance and identities couldn’t distract from the blatant discrimination they and other female artists were experiencing – from the dismal number of exhibitions to the disparity in works held in private and public collections; even the ratio of men to women in positions of power at galleries and institutions.

The 100 or so Guerrilla Girls named themselves after dead and under-appreciated female artists and channelled their artistic energies into clever, attention-grabbing posters, billboards, books and public actions that often named offending institutions and directors. One of their more memorable campaigns included the 1989 poster series featuring a gorilla-masked female nude draped along a chaise lounge, a reproduction of the nude in Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres's La Grande Odalisque, with the question, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?” and the subtitle: “Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, But 85% of the nudes are female.”

Taro, whose real identity remains unknown to this day, opted to name herself after the German artist Gerta Pohorylle, who called herself Gerda Taro, and is believed to be the first woman photojournalist to die while covering a war’s frontline (she died in 1937 at the Battle of Brunete during the Spanish Civil War). “I like how she invented her own name, and that of her partner, Robert Capa,” says Taro, who will wear a knit mask designed by American textile artist Cat Mazza for her Sydney Contemporary appearance.

Although the Guerrilla Girls split in 2001, ultimately reforming as three groups – the original Guerrilla Girls Inc; a touring theatre collective Guerrilla Girls On Tour; and GuerrillaGirlsBroadBand (GGBB), which fights sexism, racism and social injustice in the “wired workplace” – the campaigning is ongoing. “The work must continue and must continually change to meet the changing environment in which we find ourselves,” says Taro.

The imbalance in the representation in galleries of women artists is changing, albeit slowly, and Australia is doing something to effect that change. A new women-only art space, Finkelstein Gallery, opened in Melbourne recently, and other galleries and institutions are making efforts to redress the imbalance.

At Sydney Contemporary, Taro’s first visit to Australia, she will appear in conversation as part of its Talk Contemporary series. She’s joined by assistant director of the National Gallery of Australia Alison Wright, to dissect the topic: What will it take to achieve gender equality in the art world?

Wright has recently attracted attention for spearheading the NGA’s #knowmyname campaign developed to educate people about Australian female artists, including Tracey Moffatt, Rosalie Gascoigne, Grace Cossington Smith and Joy Hester.

Art and Activism: Campaigns For Gender Equity From a Member Of the Original Guerrilla Girls Collective and the NGA is on Friday September 13 at 6pm.

MORE ESSENTIAL VIEWING
Fair director Barry Keldoulis says the past four Sydney Contemporary fairs have attracted more than 112,000 visitors who have spent more than $40 million in art sales. Yet with more than 95 galleries exhibiting new work from 450 artists representing 34 countries including Australia, London and New York (Flowers Gallery), Paris (Nil Gallery), Singapore (Yavuz Gallery), and Tokyo (LOKO Gallery), having a little direction and guidance is helpful.

So here is our pick of what else to see.

Climb the Tower of Power
Art fairs like Sydney Contemporary are supposed to let you gauge the art-world zeitgeist. You walk around the gallery booths and installations and see if any patterns or themes emerge.

Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro’s site-specific Tower of Power is a place to monitor the ebb and flow of the festival. Climb the neo-medieval tower for 360-degree views and – conveniently – a place to recharge your phone. The artists say the “combination of old-school architectural observation strategies teamed with new-school networked-fomo sensibilities illustrates the ongoing desire to keep our finger on the pulse in order to produce victorious outcomes.” (Thursday 12, 12pm to 9pm.)

Opening night
It happens on Thursday September 12 (5pm to 9pm) and is a bit of a party. It’s also your only chance to experience influential contemporary Aussie artist Tony Albert’s Confessions. It was conceived for Mona’s Dark Mofo Festival and sees punters enter a booth to create a silent, abstract conversation with the artist, purely through mark making. You’ll then be able to keep your collaborative artwork piece (6pm to 9pm).

Also on Thursday night (7pm) is a performance of Ghost Songs for Rock Gate by Sydney artist Nell. It’s an architectural and sonic structure comprised of Marshall amplifiers assembled into a torrii gate. Activated by a guitarist borrowing from the rituals of Japanese religion and an anarchic punk mentality, the work will flip between silent and loud.

Stay in a hotel room surround by sculptures and personal objects by local artists
Book a stay in one of the four local-artist-designed suites at Sofitel Darling Harbour. For a month there will be four site-specific installations in the hotel and immersive works in two Prestige Suites by Tony Albert and Louise Zhang, and a Junior Suite by Sarah Contos on the hotel’s 29th floor. Nadia Hernández has created something for the top-floor executive lounge, too. The rooms are available to book until October.

Enter a virtual-reality world
At the fest see the Sydney debut of the virtual reality (VR) work by one of Australia’s leading visual artists, Joan Ross. The Scottish Sydney-based artist was commissioned this year by the Mordant Family to create Did you ask the river? for Melbourne’s Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI). It’s not a regular VR experience. In the style of a first-person video game, Ross places you in the body of an 18th-century colonial woman and you become complicit in her destruction of a vibrant landscape.

The afterparty
Newtown bar Earl’s Juke Joint will host the official opening night afterparty. There’ll be DJs and Campari sodas (between 9pm and 10pm the first 100 are free), as well as other drinks involving Campari.

Plus …
There will be plenty of food from Harvest and Next Kitchen by Darren Taylor caterers, as well as bars hosted by Campari, Champagne Taittinger and Handpicked Wine.

Some key local galleries to look out for include Paddington’s Roslyn Oxley9, which looks after artists such as controversial photographer Bill Henson, and Darlinghurst’s APY Gallery. It shows new and early-career artists from South Australia’s APY Lands, a hotbed of Indigenous artists, many of which have entered prestigious shows such as the AGNSW’s Wynne prize.

Sydney Contemporary is at Carriageworks from September 12 to 15.

sydneycontemporary.com.au