fierce pussy

Susanne Huber

To start a queer conversation out in public was the initial impetus of fierce pussy, “a collective of queer women dedicated to creating public art and direct action addressing issues of lesbian identity and visibility”, as stated by The Harvard Museum announcing a retrospective show on art activism at the threshold from the 1980s to 1990s. New York-based and established in 1991 within the cultural background of the AIDS epidemic, fierce pussy was formed by a shifting group of female artists and activists, the member’s earlier engagement in the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) formed their common background and shared ideas of political participation. By infecting public sceneries with catchy yet challenging visual material as for example extensive wheat pastings of posters, the group aimed to approach issues around the social perception of female homosexuality and lesbian identified women, more precisely a then defamed lesbianism (fig. 1). Though working mostly in self-organized and off-space surroundings, in some recent projects the group worked together with institutions such as the already mentioned Harvard Art Museums, White Columns, or Printed Matter, Inc., both NYC.

The various projects fierce pussy realized over the course of the years are directed to a critical, collective and most of all public participation in political events, and in particular images – or rather printed matters – being the visible means of this engagement. Low-tech and easily accessible modes of production were the conditions for a distinct visual language that relied on donations or leftovers and facilities the day jobs of the members offered. Indeed the early posters determine the visual ID of fierce pussy: incisive claims in rugged typewriter letterings, often assembled with pictures taken by amateur photographers, designed and reproduced with ordinary black and white Xerox copies on regular office paper (fig. 2). In cloak-and-dagger operations the various motives were continually spread on any urban surface whether legitimate or not, covering vast areas or leaving single traces.

Notably provocation and normalization were two, seemingly opposed strategies to form an aesthetic of civil disobedience. One the one hand, the slogans deployed a very graphic language to declare a self-confident, proud position, confronting the beholder with a multitude of pejorative terms for lesbians, for example dyke, butch, pervert, etc. (fig. 3). On the other hand though directly linked, the group targeted at a certain ordinariness in connecting an exoticized lesbian identity with random information, or by depicting of women in harmless, meaning ‘normal’ pictures like cute baby photos or vacation imageries, while short captions indicate the ‘lesbian content’ those images might carry (fig. 4). In this sort of visual dialectics, the posters both direct attention to the clichéd representation of female homosexuals and dismantle a depreciative labeling through determined appropriation.

For those artistic practices the public realm provides a place where art is effectively rebound to real life matters. Though the regime of the city is not only to be held as a living space but also as disciplinary and possibly endangering entity. The streets within that environment not only offer a stage for resistance as well as for building communities and identities, they also enable direct confrontation and can be a powerful tool to make evident what is not supposed to be seen or heard by dominant forces. In a subsequently published interview, the group claims: “We don’t see public space as neutral or abstract. […] Historically, public space has held a contradiction for queer people; on the one hand we have been invisible and on the other hand we are frequently the target of violence in public. Part of the impulse in making this work has been to let other queer people know that we are here, that queer people are everywhere – simply put, we make ourselves visible.“ (fierce pussy)

The collective’s deep grounding in feminist tactics becomes explicitly evident in the deliberate use of images gathered from the member’s private collections and family albums. What is at stake here is not just an emphatic call for recognition but one of the strongest and most popular feminist approaches, culminating in the assertion that “the personal is political”. Initially published as a headline to Carol Hanisch’s article in “Notes from the Second Year: Women’s Liberation”, an anthology edited by Shulamith Firestone and Anne Koedt in 1970, the claim was supposed to approve empowerment through the politicization of women’s private lives and experiences. In this spirit the feminist movement evolved their tools from secluded consciousness-raising groups to entering the public political stage demanding voice and visibility. So to fierce pussy inherently feminist questions about power and agency mark an important reference when drawing attention to both actual political events or more latent issues on knowledge as in an attempt to “Mining the Archive” at The Lesbian Herstory Archives, Brooklyn, NYC in 2009.

The group continues working in versatile projects until today. Being a critical constant in public political discourse in the U.S., four of the founding members still keep up and represent the core of fierce pussy: Nancy Brooks Brody, Joy Episalla, Zoe Leonard, and Carrie Yamaoka, who also work as single artists, together develop and realize contributions such as the installation for the quinquennial exhibition “Greater New York” at MoMA PS 1 in 2015/16.

fig. 1: 1991 list posters

fig. 2: 1991/92 family pictures and found photos

fig. 3: 1991 list posters

fig. 4: 1991/92 family pictures and found photos


  • Episalla, Joy, „Crossing over“ – ACT UP/fierce pussy. Kunst und politisches Engagement. In: Hieber, Lutz, Stephan Moebius (Hg.), Avantgarden und Politik. Künstlerischer Aktivismus von Dada bis zur Postmoderne. Bielefeld 2009, S. 185–202.
  • Hieber, Lutz, Politisierung der Kunst. Avantgarde und US-Kunstwelt. Wiesbaden 2015.
  • Man Ling Lee, Theresa, Rethinking the Personal and the Political. Feminist Activism and Civic Engagement. In: Hypathia Vol. 2, No. 4, 2007, S. 163–179.


About the author:
Susanne Huber is part of the DFG-research project „ Aesthetic of Desire” at Freie Universität Berlin, Department of Art History. Her work focuses on issues of materiality and mediality of feminist informed art during the 1980s in the USA. After graduating in Art History she held a position as a research associate at the Collaborative Research Center: Aesthetic Experience and the Dissolution of Limits, Berlin, and also worked as a studio manager for Monica Bonvicini.

Reference / Quellennachweis:
Susanne Huber: fierce pussy, in: Aesthetics of Resistance, Pictorial Glossary, The Nomos of Images, ISSN: 2366-9926, 15 November 2016, URL:

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