Black Artists Demand New York City Museum Remove, Destroy Painting of Emmett Till

By Sameer Rao Mar 23, 2017

A White artist’s painting, inspired by famous photos of Emmett Till‘s body after his murder, generated controversy when several Black artists accused the painter of exploiting Black death for profit.

Artnet reported Tuesday (March 21) on demands that organizers of the Whitney Biennial, a recurring exhibition at New York City’s Whitney Museum of American Art, remove and destroy Dana Schutz’s "Open Casket." The painting, which the Whitney unveiled at the Biennial’s opening Friday (March 17), is based on images originally published by Jet Magazine and The Chicago Defender 1955 of Till’s body at his open-casket funeral. Those pictures inspired outrage against Till’s lynching by Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam for allegedly flirting with Bryant’s wife, Carolyn. 

British-born and Berlin-based artist and writer Hannah Black, who previously participated in a Whitney-based residency, published an open letter on Artnet asking Biennial leadership to remove Schutz’s work from the exhibit "with the urgent recommendation that the painting be destroyed and not entered into any market or museum." Black explains her belief that "Open Casket" devalues and repurposes an image of Black suffering for the sake of consumption: 

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. …

Emmett Till’s name has circulated widely since his death. It has come to stand not only for Till himself but also for the mournability (to each other, if not to everyone) of people marked as disposable, for the weight so often given to a White woman’s word above a Black child’s comfort or survival, and for the injustice of anti-Black legal systems. Through his mother’s courage, Till was made available to Black people as an inspiration and warning. Non-Black people must accept that they will never embody and cannot understand this gesture: The evidence of their collective lack of understanding is that Black people go on dying at the hands of White supremacists, that Black communities go on living in desperate poverty not far from the museum where this valuable painting hangs, that Black children are still denied childhood. Even if Schutz has not been gifted with any real sensitivity to history, if Black people are telling her that the painting has caused unnecessary hurt, she and you must accept the truth of this. The painting must go.

Black goes on to describe the painting within broader conversations about appropriation and the potentially destructive impact of non-Black people circulating images depicting Black people’s deaths at the hands of police or White supremacists. "Although derided by many White and White-affiliated critics as trivial and naive, discussions of appropriation and representation go to the heart of the question of how we might seek to live in a reparative mode, with humility, clarity, humor and hope, given the barbaric realities of racial and gendered violence on which our lives are founded," she writes.  

Artnet reports that Black originally issued the letter via Facebook on Monday (March 20) with more than 30 signatories of different races before removing it and reposting with only Black ones. Links to that post now yield a "This page is not available" message, but Artnet quoted Black as writing that she updated the co-signers list "in response to some helpful criticism." The Fader published a transcript yesterday with 27 of those names; they include composer Hannah Catherine Jones, artist and writer Carolyn Lazard and filmmaker Ja’Tovia Gary.

Another signatory, Parker Bright, staged his own protest at the exhibit’s opening. The Guardian reports that Bright stood close to the painting, blocking it from many viewers’ eyes, while wearing a shirt reading "No lynch mob" on the front and "Black death spectacle" on the back. "I wanted to confront people with a living, breathing Black body," he told the publication.

Schutz responded to the criticism and letter in a statement to The Daily Beast yesterday. She said she created "Open Casket" last August "after a long, violent summer of mass shootings, rallies filled with hate speech and an ever-escalating number of camera phone videos of Black men being shot execution style by police." She emphasized that the painting would not be for sale. While she was surprised by calls for its destruction, and said that "public discussion and argument is important and essential for art." 

Biennial curators Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks wrote in a statement to Artnet yesterday that they included "Open Casket" "to acknowledge the importance of this extremely consequential and solemn image in American and African-American history and the history of race relations in this country." The Biennial’s website says that the exhibition’s works address "a time rife with racial tensions, economic inequities and polarizing politics." The Biennial also features works focused on race from artists of color like Henry Taylor, whose painting, "The Times They Ain’t A Changing, Fast Enough!"depicts Philando Castile‘s killing by St. Anthony, Minnesota, police officer Jeronimo Yanez.

Till’s murder reentered the news earlier this year when scholar Timothy Tyson revealed in his book, "The Blood of Emmett Till" (and a corresponding Vanity Fair interview) that Carolyn Bryant Donham admitted to him that she fabricated allegations against Till.