Curators Defend Artist's Portrayal of Emmett Till

Anna Timmis
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Posted: Aug 03, 2017 7:05 AM
Curators Defend Artist's Portrayal of Emmett Till

An exhibit of artist Dana Schutz is opening in the Institute of Contemporary Art. Her oil painting called “Open Casket,” depicting Emmett Till, the young black boy murdered by white men, enraged other artists, since Schutz is white, leading them to call for her exhibit to be taken down from the 2017 Whitney Biennial, reported Artnet News in March.

Curators of the exhibit have responded to the campaign against Schutz, saying the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston is a platform to think about weighty issues. While Schutz's exhibit is opening this week, according to National Review, it excludes the painting. 

In a statement, Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, the Whitney Biennial curators, defended Schutz’s portrayal of a difficult subject matter, saying that her painting is unsettling as it depicts violence toward African Americans, and holds “tremendous emotional resonance” for them.

“By exhibiting the painting we wanted to acknowledge the importance of this extremely consequential and solemn image in American and African American history…we believe in providing a museum platform for artists to explore these critical issues.” 

In a letter dated July 25, "artists, activists, and community members" said they met with curators of the museum to discuss the issue, but had "many questions left unanswered and with a promise from the ICA to continue this dialogue," and a list of demands. 

Hannah Black, an artist based in Berlin, had written a letter in an attempt to pressure curators into taking down Schutz's display. She said that free speech and freedom of expression for white people are not natural rights, because they “have been founded on the constraint of others.” 

She also stated, “It’s not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun.” 

Black wrote, “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 his painting exists at all.” 

In 1955, 14-year-old Till allegedly whistled at or flirted with a young white woman. He was later beaten and murdered. The two killers were acquitted of their crime. Till’s mother kept open his casket at his funeral so that people could see his disfigured face and know how he was brutally killed. His death has been the subject of multiple artists, and drew attention to social injustice. 

Black said the subject does not belong to Schutz, writing, “Although Schutz’s intention may be to present white shame, this shame is not correctly represented as a painting of a dead Black boy by a white artist—those non-Black artists who sincerely wish to highlight the shameful nature of white violence should first of all stop treating Black pain as raw material." 

Activists asked that Black's letter be reconsidered, and are still calling for the curators to "pull" Schutz's exhibit, saying that they do not find excluding "Open Casket," "sufficient."