Detail of “Self-Portrait as a Model Citizen” by Wilmer Wilson IV

Artists frequently say they want their work to start a conversation or spark thoughts and reactions among their audiences. Frequently, those artist are aiming to ignite a spotlight for social justice and human rights issues.

On Thursday, Jan. 10, 21c Museum Hotel and the ACLU of Kentucky are using the art featured in 21c’s current exhibition as a jumping-off point for seven speakers to share their thoughts at “Reactions2: Art, Advocacy and Activism.”

Africa Hands, ACLU of Kentucky’s operations and development associate, and Karen Gillenwater, 21c’s museum manager — both of whom worked to set up the event — took some time to speak with Insider about social justice, art and why it’s great for people to have reactions when they look at art.

Africa Hands

“I came up with this idea of people presenting their reactions to the pieces, because they are very provocative and spark a lot of conversations,” says Hands.

She’s gathered seven Louisvillians, six guest speakers and one host for the event. They’re all thinkers and talkers who aren’t afraid to speak in public. She asked each of them to pick a piece of artwork from “Dress Up, Speak Up: Costume and Confrontation,” currently on display at 21c, and talk about how it affected them.

Hands believes this format can shed light on ACLU’s mission and illuminate 21c’s place in the Louisville scene.  

“It can demonstrate that art is accessible, free, open to the public and thought-provoking,” says Hands. “A lot of this art ties into work we’re doing at the ACLU.”

Gillenwater agrees.  

“I really feel like (events like these) help us to leverage what we can do and work with others in the community so that together we can accomplish a lot more,” she says. “We can involve more people, we can bring in more diverse audiences and make the programs more powerful overall.”

An overview of the exhibit at 21c | Courtesy of 21c Museum Hotel

This is the third reaction-based event that ACLU has hosted at 21c, and Hands says this time of year it’s particularly important for her organization to be very active.

“The legislative session starts tomorrow, so we have different ally groups that we do lobby days with and special mini-lobby days where we take constituents to Frankfort to talk with their lawmakers,” she explains.

Hands and Gillenwater also are hoping that Thursday’s event starts conversations between attendees and their elected officials. They’ve taken steps to encourage that conversation to happen immediately.

“We’ll have an action station where people can take direct action by writing letters to their legislators, or signing postcards supporting particular issues, so we’re going to try  to pair up — as much a we can — what a speaker talks about with a particular issue,” says Hands.

Karen Gillenwater

An interesting twist in this month’s speaker lineup will give an immediate insight into how various people view art.

“Two of the speakers have selected the same artwork, so I think it will be really fascinating to see how they respond differently to the work,” says Gillenwater.

Multiple perspectives and reactions to art are something Gillenwater sees frequently.

“As I do tours of the exhibition and have conversations with our guests about artwork, I get to hear those personal reactions and stories,” she says, noting that tours are free and open to the public.

Thursday’s speakers will be doing a little bit of response to the art, a little bit of sharing memories the art brings to mind, and a little bit of speaking to social justice issues. Think a cross between a Ted Talk and The Moth. But Hands makes it clear that the presentations aren’t reports or essays on the artists who created the works.

“It’s your reaction. You don’t have to do background on the artists, because it might color what you think about it,” she says.

Additionally, Hands wants to make sure that even though art may be the subject, artists won’t dominate the conversation.

“Breathe” by Fahamu Pecou

“I was looking more at (inviting) non-artists,” she says. “They all have pretty diverse backgrounds, so it’ll be very interesting to see how (the art) personally resonates with them.”

The speakers at last year’s event ended up presenting their stories to a standing-room-only crowd, but Gillenwater says she’s not as interested in the quantity of the guests.

“Even if you don’t have a huge crowd at an event, but if you have people hanging out and having conversations, that’s where you often see the success,” she says. “It makes a ripple effect that continues on.”

“People continuing the conversations and taking action,” adds Hands.

Re-Actions2: Art, Advocacy and Activism” is free and open to the public on Thursday, Jan. 10. Cocktails begin at 5 p.m., with speakers beginning at 6 p.m. The full list of speakers includes Brianna Harlan, Keturah Herron, Shashray McCormack, Andrew Tucker, Lorena Bonet Velazquez and Jamari White. 21c is located at 700 W. Main St.

Eli Keel
Eli Keel is “pretty much” a Louisville native. You may have seen him around town reading poetry, short stories, dancing or acting. He’s a passionate locavore, so you may have also seen him stuffing his face at one of Louisville’s amazing restaurants. When he isn’t too busy writing short stories, he blogs at