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Creator of Emmett Till 'Open Casket' at Whitney Responds to Backlash

Do white artists have the right to depict Black pain? The painting has stirred conversation on cultural appropriation and Black bodies as a spectacle.
Dana Schutz's "Open Casket," a 2016 painting in the 2017 Whitney Biennial
Dana Schutz's "Open Casket," a 2016 painting in the 2017 Whitney BiennialMATTHIAS KOLB 12355 BERLIN / Collection of the artist

A painting of Emmett Till hanging embedded with the prestigious body of work in Whitney Biennial has stirred conversation on cultural appropriation, artistic ownership and Black bodies as a spectacle, culminating in a critical question: Do white artists have the right to depict Black pain?

The painting by Dana Schutz, entitled, “Open Casket,” reimagines the photo of Emmett Till following his horrific murder on August 28, 1955. In a gruesome similarity to the original image, Schutz paints Till’s face in the abstract. The smudges of paint remind that his face was indeed left disfigured, unidentifiable.

This week the painting sparked outrage and protest among some Black artists, who called for its removal and destruction and physically blocked the piece in the gallery space.

Berlin-based artist Hannah Black posted an open letter on Facebook to the Whitney Museum curators and staff on Tuesday. “It is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun, though the practice has been normalized for a long time,” Black wrote. “Contemporary art is a fundamentally white supremacist institution.”

Schutz has responded to the backlash saying the painting is "not a rendering of the photograph but is more an engagement with the loss." She also says the painting "was never and is not for sale."

"I understand the outrage. Till’s photograph was a sacred image of the Civil Rights movement and I am a white woman. I did not take making this painting lightly," Schutz said in a statement to NBCBLK. "I don’t object to people questioning the work or even my right to make it. There has to be an open discussion."

Related: Chicago Artist Heals Through His Creations

Schutz says she made the painting in August of 2016 during a time which she calls "a state of emergency" that came about as a result of fatal officer involved shootings of unarmed Blacks. She believes the violence Till experienced coincides with violence and brutality innocent Black men face today.

"The photograph of Emmett Till felt analogous to the time, what was hidden was now revealed," Schutz said. "I was struck by Mamie Till’s account of witnessing her son and her grief and rage. Her gesture of leaving the casket open was about visibility, sharing pain and witnessing. I wanted the painting to be intimate, not grotesque but I wanted to show the brutality."

Image: Mamie Till Mobley weeps at Emmett Till's funeral
Mamie Till Mobley weeps at her son's funeral on Sept. 6, 1955, in Chicago. Till, mother of Emmett Till, insisted that her son's body be displayed in an open casket forcing the nation to see the brutality directed at blacks in the South at the time. Chicago Sun-Times via AP

Art professor Dr. Lisa Whittington, a Black artist who has created two paintings of Emmett Till, says she doesn’t have an issue with a white artist taking on the difficult subject matter, but questions Schutz’s perspective in making the painting.

“I would ask her, why she did not paint the Emmett Till Story from a white woman’s point of view? Is there nothing that as a white woman that she would want to say? Especially in recently knowing that the woman who accused Emmett Till has admitted that she lied. Where is the artwork that represents her lies?” Whittington said. “The two men who lynched Emmett? Where is the artwork about them? Does she have nothing to say there?”

Whittington continued, “As artists—responsible artists—we are to speak and to document history. We are to tell about life from our point of view from where we stand.”

Parker Bright, New York-based interdisciplinary artist, curator, and co-founder of 4E Gallery in Chicago protested the depiction, physically blocked the painting for eight hours over two days.

“Recently in media, Black death is sensationalized and has been for years. It’s creating a spectacle out of Black bodies," Bright continued, calling the depiction a flattening out and reducing of the original photograph to “just an abstract painting.”

For Bright, Schutz’s painting is one that is comparable to the likes of a lynch mob, reducing the experience to “a bunch of white people looking at a dead Black body.”

Bright calls the artist’s re-creation of the mutilated body comparable to the “violence” exhibited by Carolyn Bryant Donham, the white woman who accused Till of grabbing and verbally threatening her. Decades later, Donham has admitted that she lied and Till's relatives have called for authorities to reopen the investigation.

Baruti Kopano is an associate professor at Morgan State University and author of “Soul Thieves: The Appropriation and Misrepresentation of African American Popular Culture.” On WNYC's The Takeaway, Kopano discussed the controversy surrounding the painting and Schutz's response.

“At what point do Black people control the stories of Black bodies?," questioned Kopano. "I can appreciate the artist’s attempt to keep this memory alive. I can appreciate the artist’s attempt to engage us in dialogue – I’m not sure if she imagined this level of controversy."

Kopano reminds that some images of Black people are "so precious." The “precious” nature of these images enable us to "understand why some of us want to make sure that there is some control of those images."

Related: Emmett Till Book Prompts Cousins to Call for New Investigation

Despite public outcry from Black artists, the Whitney Biennial curators are standing by their decision to feature the work.

Nancy and Fred Poses curators Mia Locks and Christopher Y. Lew released a joint statement to NBCBLK stating, “The 2017 Whitney Biennial brings to light many facets of the human experience, including conditions that are painful or difficult to confront such as violence, racism, and death. Many artists in the exhibition push in on these issues, seeking empathetic connections in an especially divisive time.”

The curators describe Schutz’s painting as an “unsettling image that speaks to the long-standing violence that has been inflicted upon African Americans.”

Though the Whitney Museum believes Schutz’s painting to be an image with “tremendous emotional resonance” for “many African Americans in particular,” some Black artists point to the Whitney and it’s curators as the ones who’ve been irresponsible.

“The problem is not necessarily with Dana. The problem is with the museums. If the Whitney or any other contemporary museum (i.e. Museum of Modern Art) was truly concerned about racism, they would make and curate an authentic exhibit of Black artists and their point of view,” said Whittington.

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