Controversial Painting of Emmett Till on Display for the Whitney Museum’s Biennial

By Patrick Barron, National News Writer

The story of Emmett Till is a reminder of how race relations were in the past. Photographed for the public, his mutilated body showed the world the racial injustice that African-Americans faced in the country. In 1955, Till was lynched by two white men in Mississippi based on a claim by a white woman that the fourteen-year-old flirted with her. Till’s mother decided to have an open casket and allow Jet magazine to publish the gruesome photograph. A precursor to the modern American Civil Rights Movement, it is dark moment in American history.

Today, Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket” is a painting that is on display at the 2017 Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Her artwork was based on the photographs, using abstract techniques to show the disfigurement of the boy’s face. A controversial decision for the museum to display the artwork, the painting has drawn protests both online and at the museum. It drew mixed reactions from people; it has its defenders and its critics.

In the discussion of Schutz’s painting, one controversial issue has been the portrayal of Till by a white woman. On the one hand, several people argue that it is important to discuss the implications of the painting by questioning the country’s current political climate and its viewpoint on race. To the contrary, others question the purpose of the painting, calling it a mockery of black issues. Even more than 60 years later, the story of Emmett Till is a difficult topic to discuss in America.

For protesters, numerous people positioned themselves in front of the painting in an attempt to block the painting view. Hannah Black, a British-born black artist wrote a letter to Whitney Biennials curators. She wrote in a Facebook message that “the subject matter is not Schutz’s… White free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights. The painting must go.” Hannah Black is not alone in her critic about the “Open Casket” painting. So far, over thirty artists showed their support by signing her message.

In light of the ongoing controversy, Schutz issued a statement. She said, “I don’t know what it is like to be black in America but I do know what it is like to be a mother. Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son. The thought of anything happening to your child is beyond comprehension. Their pain is your pain. My engagement with this image was through empathy with his mother.”

Equally important, the curators defended their decision to include the painting in the exhibit, noting the theme of the exhibit centered on violence, regardless of its social origin.

In fact, Christopher Lew, one the curators said, “For us it was so much about an issue that extends across race. Yes, it’s mostly black men who are being killed, but in a larger sense this is an American problem.” Mia Locks, the other curator said, “Right now I think there are a lot of sensitivities not just to race but to questions of identities in general. We welcome these responses. We invited these conversations intentionally in the way that we thought about the show.”

Recently, the woman who in the 1950s claimed that Till whistled at her admitted that she lied about the story. According to the New York Times, Carolyn Bryant Donham made up the story, which ultimately lead the fourteen-year-old Emmett Till’s death. Although the future of the painting is unknown, Schutz said that she does not intend to sell the work.

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, April 4th print edition.

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