Kota Ezawa Talks Protest and Pressure Ahead of 2019 Whitney Biennial

Kota Ezawa, 'National Anthem (Oakland Raiders),' 2019; watercolor on paper, 13 x 23 inches, edition variée of 3. (Courtesy of the artist and Haines Gallery)

When the 2019 Whitney Biennial opens on May 17, Oakland-based artist Kota Ezawa will be one of just two Bay Area participants in what the New York museum describes as “an unmissable event for anyone interested in finding out what’s happening in art today.” Among his contributions is a watercolor animation titled National Anthem, which pulls imagery from television footage of 2016 and 2017 protests at NFL games, and plays over a cello quartet’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Ezawa began working on the piece, which premieres at the biennial, almost a year and a half ago. And he finished it last week. When we spoke over the phone, he still seemed a bit dazed by the undertaking, which entailed painting aboumarlot 200 individual watercolors. Ezawa rendered each image—many of kneeling or arm-in-arm football players—three separate times.

“Because this was such a monumental effort, it’s hard to think, ‘How can I top this?’ It seems kind of impossible,” he said.

In addition to this personal artistic accomplishment, and the honor of being selected as one of 75 artists and collectives included in the biennial, Ezawa is experiencing the increased attention, opportunity and—some would say—responsibility that comes with being part of a major art world event.

A self-portrait by Kota Ezawa.
A self-portrait by Kota Ezawa. (Courtesy of the artist and Haines Gallery)

On April 29, Ezawa joined a list of nearly 50 Whitney Biennial artists who added their names to “the Verso letter,” a missive first published on April 5 by an original group of more than 120 theorists, critics and scholars. The letter calls for the removal of Warren B. Kanders, vice chair of the Whitney Museum’s board, echoing an earlier demand signed by 100 members of the Whitney staff.

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These letters come at a time when the art world is taking a closer look at its funding sources—and the potential contradictions between a donor’s values and an institution’s stated mission. Kanders, CEO of Safariland, a “law enforcement products company” that supplied U.S. border agents with the tear gas used against migrant families at the Mexican border, has emerged as a flashpoint for museum staff, activist groups, and now, the biennial artists themselves.

Ezawa talked with KQED about the process of being selected for the biennial, what it means to represent the Bay Area on a national stage, and why he decided to join the protests surrounding Kanders’ position at the Whitney.

How does it feel to be one of only two Bay Area artists included in this year’s biennial? (Marlon Mullen is the other local artist.)

I was honestly a little bit shocked by that. I don’t think I’m the most visible Bay Area artist or the one who’s had the most outrageous shows in the last couple of years. I was a little bit sad that there’s only the two of us.

But maybe it’s a wake-up call. There was a lot of self-congratulation in the Bay Area with the expansion of the museums, and maybe the artist community needs a little bit more help or attention. In the last Whitney there weren’t that many Bay Area artists either. [Porpentine Charity Heartscape was the only locally based participant.]

There’s plenty of artists here, but I feel the museums and the newly arrived blue-chip galleries are getting all the attention. I think the artist community should be given more support.

Kota Ezawa, 'National Anthem (San Francisco 49ers),' 2019; watercolor on paper, 16.5 x 29 inches, edition variée of 3.
Kota Ezawa, 'National Anthem (San Francisco 49ers),' 2019; watercolor on paper, 16.5 x 29 inches, edition variée of 3. (Courtesy of the artist and Haines Gallery)

What is the process of being selected for the biennial like?

This is the third time that I had studio visits from the Whitney curators, but the first time that I was selected. The first time was 12 years ago. I was fairly fresh out of grad school, and I felt like I had it “going on.” I remember I had a really long visit with the curators and I felt really disappointed that they didn’t select me. But in retrospect I'm kind of happy because I feel like the work that I did then had its shortcomings—I’m not saying the work I’m doing now is closer to perfection, but I feel it has a few more things going on than what I did back then.

The selection process is different for every artist, but this time, it wasn’t really so much about having me in this show, I think they [curators Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley] wanted to have this work in the show. There was never any discussion about which piece we’re going to show, it was always “this is the one.”

How long do you have to keep your inclusion a secret?

Forever. In the past you had to shut up about it for three months or so, but this time it was five months. It became kind of difficult because obviously you need time to prepare. So I had to tell my bosses at California College of the Arts that I couldn’t teach a full load.

Even though it’s a little bit painful—you feel like you have this information in your pocket and you can’t tell anybody—it’s kind of good, because it stops people from bragging about it. I feel that’s always healthy for artists.

Kota Ezawa, 'National Anthem (Tennessee Titans),' 2019; watercolor on paper, 16 x 29 inches, edition variée of 3.
Kota Ezawa, 'National Anthem (Tennessee Titans),' 2019; watercolor on paper, 16 x 29 inches, edition variée of 3. (Courtesy of the artist and Haines Gallery)

Why did you decide to join the signatories on the letter to the Whitney?

Since the beginning of the year, there’s been a lot of discussion about [Warren B. Kanders]. There were calls from different activist groups to the biennial artists to boycott the biennial or withhold work from the biennial. For a couple months we’ve already been put in a position were we’ve had to think about how to deal with the situation. And we’re not a collective or a group, we’re just a bunch of artists who happen to be in the same show.

It’s definitely a huge distraction, but I also feel it’s the times we live in and something everyone has to deal with. The Verso letter comes on the heels of the letter by the Whitney staff. I felt that their outrage and concern was completely understandable.

I wanted to sign this letter out of solidarity with Whitney staff members I’ve worked with over the past few months, but also out of solidarity with some of the groups that have been affected by the state violence that this company supplies.

Kota Ezawa, 'National Anthem (Tampa Bay Buccaneers),' 2019; watercolor on paper, 10.5 x 19 inches, edition variée of 3.
Kota Ezawa, 'National Anthem (Tampa Bay Buccaneers),' 2019; watercolor on paper, 10.5 x 19 inches, edition variée of 3. (Courtesy of the artist and Haines Gallery)

Many of the recent protests at the Whitney centered on the Andy Warhol show From A to B and Back Again, of which Kanders was a “significant supporter.” That same show is on its way here to SFMOMA. His name isn’t on the exhibition here, but do you think there’s any responsibility on the part of local artists and members of the arts community to respond and pick up the mantle of solidarity with the Whitney staff?

Hopefully everyone will learn from this, including the administration at the Whitney Museum, the administrations of other big museums, and the artist communities. I think the biggest responsibility for everyone is to have a dialogue about this.

This kind of schizophrenic situation has existed everywhere in the art world. And now it kind of broke open and people are saying, “We can’t have this crazy schizophrenic situation anymore.” And nobody says, “This is the solution, we have the solution, period.” But now I think we have the problem.

I’m not sure how much Warren Kanders funded the travel of the exhibition or what portions of the exhibition he funded, so I can’t make any call to protest. But I feel everyone’s responsible to think about these issues because they’re now out in front of us.

Kota Ezawa, 'National Anthem (Miami Dolphins),' 2019; watercolor on paper, 10.5 x 19 inches, edition variée of 3.
Kota Ezawa, 'National Anthem (Miami Dolphins),' 2019; watercolor on paper, 10.5 x 19 inches, edition variée of 3. (Courtesy of the artist and Haines Gallery)

Does this feel like something you’ve always dreamed of as a marker in your career?

Every one of us reads that list every two years and every one of us thinks, “Why am I not on there?” And I’m one of those artists who was jealous of other artists who were on that list before.

I’m turning 50 this year and I’ve been doing this for a long time, so it’s not that my work has not been seen in different places, but this is definitely the show that will get the most eyeballs of all the shows I’ve done so far.

But it comes with nervousness and I think, for some people, the anxiety that you don’t have when you have a show at Adobe Books or something like that. There will be a response to it, or no response, but you obviously hope the response will not be outrage or condemnation.

After the exhibition opens on May 17, what’s next for you?

I can sit still. I feel like I spent as much of my personal money on this project as someone who went to grad school. Because I have kids and a family, I can’t do another “MFA” right this second.

But I think last night I got an idea of how to go forward from here. It’s kind of like a psychological trick: If you could only do one more piece, what would it be? And so this is the piece that I will try to make, the piece that I need to do before I leave the planet.

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‘Whitney Biennial 2019’ opens May 17 and is on view through Sept. 22 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. Details here. See more of Kota Ezawa’s work at Haines Gallery.

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