Reflections on Activism and Art by Kitty Jospé

Reflections on Activism and Art by Kitty Jospé

[From Kota Ezawa’s series, National Anthem]

By Kitty Jospé

On Saturday, I went with a friend to the Memorial Art Gallery where we spent time with the Kota Ezawa, National Anthem, and works in the neighboring Cameros Gallery, focussing on Unfinished Business by Shawn Dunwoody[1], the maquette of Swing Low, by Alison Saar behind it and North Tree  by G. Peter Jemison[2] with a comparison with Genesee Oaks by Asher Brown Durand[3]. Perhaps you can see from the footnotes, it would be tempting to write a book on each one as well as several volumes about the importance of conversations in an art museum, not just between viewer and object, but multiple contexts.

As moderator of poetry appreciation classes and docent, it has been a joy to help people “notice and wonder”.  I am delighted that in one weekly group that has been meeting since February 2008, most everyone is converted to this idea: “When I don’t like a poem, I ask myself, what is it that I am not understanding?” The point of course, is that a weekly discussion of mostly contemporary poetry, or a visit to an art museum is not to confirm personal ideas about beauty, truth or find answers. I am a convert of Socratic method, where questions and sharing reflections guide us to discover individual “eureka” moments.  This does not happen with facts, information but through a certain alchemy that happens with mindful observation.

If perhaps you wonder what activism has to do with art, I answer, everything! Art is a powerful tool of human expression that allows us to examine what it is to be human from multiple viewpoints of different cultures, traditions, time periods.  Just as we might not like to see what faces us in the mirror, our challenge is to first observe what it is we see.  I think immediately of some of pieces at the MAG that ask for careful observation of what is crafted: Blue Prisms Painting by glass blower Josiah McElheny[4]; Jaune Quick to See Smith, Famous Names[5]; Kehinde Wiley,  After Memling’s Portrait Man with a Letter[6]; Nick Cave, End Upheld[7]; and so many more. After viewing, I leave with a sense of having had a satisfying conversation I look forward to resuming.

The current exhibit Art, Activism and the AIDS Poster on view until June 19 is a case in point for an invitation to consider multiple viewpoints and delving below the surface of a first impression. The 200 posters reflect a variety of  originality,  cultural richness and transnational scope.  The title “Up Against the Wall” is a perfect pun for a poster which indeed would be “put up on a wall” to address a pandemic that both put victims against a wall, and exposed a wall of prejudice against them.   As Donald Albrecht, guest curator comments, “I and my colleagues could not help but discern the long shadow AIDS casts on our current pandemic, namely the negative effect of misinformation and inaction.” 

However, first, you will need to enter through the Forman Gallery where you will encounter a large screen playing a two-minute loop showing moments before a football game. The American National Anthem, is played by a string quartet. To the left two lightboxes show two “stilled” parts of the video, and to the right, an original watercolor.  These works are from Ezawa’s critically acclaimed “National Anthem[8] series about the NFL athletes who, starting in 2016, engaged in peaceful protests against police brutality and the oppression of people of color in the US.

From Kota Ezawa’s series, National Anthem

Unlike the usual procedure of standing with a friend in front of a work of art, discussing quietly what you see, what you think, perhaps glancing at the label, the sound demands complete attention as you watch the shimmering images of players, coaches, cheerleaders, fans. According to Ezawa, the images are akin to the lyrics to this instrumental version of the National Anthem.  Because he paints each image three times, they have a reflective instability of imprecision of water and do not move smoothly as one usually expects from a film.

From Kota Ezawa’s series, National Anthem

I find it very unsettling to watch it.  However, that becomes a challenge to adopt the attitude of open curiosity.  I found it helpful to find out when and why the Star-Spangled Banner became the National Anthem and played at sports games.[9] Even though I have a general aversion to flattened cartoon-like characters, I am grateful to have experienced Ezawa’s interpretation of an important social controversy of our times.  It allowed me the gift of an invitation to respectfully think about racism, injustice, taking a personal stance; the gift of trying to understand another human being who spends what might seem to be an inordinate amount of hours to produce his art.

For sure, I wanted a conversation with Unfinished Business afterwards.

Unfinished Business by Shawn Dunwoody

I hope you will too.  Both these works are only on view until August.

Links to the MAG Youtube channel: This link will connect you to the lecture on April 10 at the MAG by Dr. Stephen Brauer: Kota Ezawa’s National Anthem: Black Bodies in Protest


Kitty loves to teach, whether it be French, poetry, or since 1999 as docent at the Memorial Art Gallery. MA French Literature; MFA in creative writing.

Kitty Jospé from Corners for Kindness

Since 2008 she has been leading workshops on art and word, moderating weekly sessions on poetry appreciation.  Her work appears in six books, and a variety of reviews and anthologies.  You can see her ekphrastic poems from her latest book, Sum:1 on the publisher’s site here:


[1] To get a sense of this powerful black and white work: here with photos from 3 tours/talks Dunwoody gave of it in December.  You will see sound equipment for the Spotify playlist created by Khalil Womack (QR code is next to the mural).  Rebecca Rafferty wrote an excellent article about it here in City Newspaper: “This large mural shares the Cameros Gallery with a portrait of our city’s namesake and slave owner, Nathaniel Rochester, the maquette for contemporary artist Alison Saar’s “Swing Low” sculpture of Harriett Tubman, and early paintings of the Genesee Valley region.” As MAG Curator of American Art, Jessica Marten,  explains  “This is an historic moment that he’s captured,” she says. “And it was his intention to look back at 1964 and at 2020, and reflect on what’s the same, what hasn’t changed over that time.”

[2] Ecology, Indigenous rights and masterful art addressed in this provocative piece will be addressed separately.


[4] any “josiah mcelheny”&sort=9



[7] any “Nick Cave”&sort=9&page=5

[8] The “National Anthem” series is an extension of Ezawa’s affinity for representing and responding to popular culture and newsworthy events through the lens of flattened, delicate watercolors and animations.



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About The Author

Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


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