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.
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.”
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.