Dana Schutz’s Painting of Emmett Till at Whitney Biennial Sparks Protest

Emmett Till

Dana Schutz, Open Casket (2016).

Oil on canvasEmmett Till

The 2017 Whitney Biennial—the first one to take place at museum’s new headquarters—has been widely praised as being uplifting, well-balanced, and as artnet News’ Ben Davis pointed out in his review, as having successfully learned from the bitter controversies over race and representation that haunted the previous iteration.

Not quite. UK-born, Berlin-based artist Hannah Black has launched a campaign demanding the Biennial curators Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks remove Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket from the show, and calling for its destruction.

In addition, a small-scale protest, organized by the artist Parker Bright, took place last Friday—when the Biennial first opened to the public—with a group of five or six people standing in front of Schutz’s painting for hours, blocking it from view until the museum closed for the day.

The painting is based on a photograph of the funeral of Emmett Till, an African-American boy who was brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955 at the age of 14 after he had been falsely accused of flirting with a white woman. Till’s mother insisted on having an open casket funeral so people could see the brutality of the lynching, exposing the horrific extent of American racism. The press images of Till’s mutilated body, along with the fact that his murderers were subsequently acquitted, are often credited as having galvanized the Civil Rights movement in the US.

Schutz’s painting is a medium-sized canvas depicting Till’s face and chest, as he lies in his coffin. artnet News’ Christian Viveros-Fauné was impressed with the work, calling it a “powerful painterly reaction to the infamous 1955 funeral photograph of a disfigured Emmett Till,” adding that “the canvas makes material the deep cuts and lacerations portrayed in the original photo by means of cardboard relief.”

For Black and many others, however, the painting is so exploitative that it requires not only to be removed, but also destroyed, so it can’t circulate in the art market or be displayed in other institutions. “It’s not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun,” Black argues.

Here’s her open letter to the Biennial curators in full:

To the curators and staff of the Whitney Biennial:

I am writing to ask you to remove Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket with the urgent recommendation that the painting be destroyed and not entered into any market or museum.

As you know, this painting depicts the dead body of 14-year-old Emmett Till in the open casket that his mother chose, saying, “Let the people see what I’ve seen.” That even the disfigured corpse of a child was not sufficient to move the white gaze from its habitual cold calculation is evident daily and in a myriad of ways, not least the fact that this painting exists at all. In brief: The painting should not be acceptable to anyone who cares or pretends to care about Black people because 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.




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