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Black artists protest Emmett Till painting by white artist

‘Open Casket’, on display at the 78th Whitney Biennial, has been criticised for its racial insensitivity

A painting on display at this year’s Whitney Biennial in New York is being protested for its racial insensitivity, with black artists coming forward to highlight the exploitation of a traumatic, racially-charged event by a white artist.

The painting, “Open Casket” by white American artist Dana Schutz, depicts the body of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy who was brutally murdered after being falsely accused of whistling at a white woman in 1955. It’s part of an exhibition that “arrives at a time of racial tensions” and aims to, “challenge us to consider how these realities affect our senses of self and community”.

The artwork derives from a photograph of Till’s body that was published in magazines at his mother’s wishes after his murder; it played a major part the civil rights movement, and is as relevant in America today as it was then as an image of suffering under racist systems. Today, it’s at the centre of a protest surrounding the co-opting of black stories by white people.

Parker Bright, an artist, has been peacefully protesting in front of the painting since the exhibition opened on Friday. He wears a t-shirt that says, “no lynch mob”, on the front, and, “black death spectacle” on the back. In a Facebook Live video of his protest, Bright called the painting, “an injustice to the black community,” adding that he believes it perpetuates “the same kind of violence that was enacted” on Till. His concerns have been echoed by many protestors and social media users both in the art world and at large.

In a statement on Twitter, photographer Emmanuel Olunkwa wrote: “Schutz’s piece perpetuates what it actively seeks to critique. In short, the existence of the piece shows that blackness and black people can only exist at the hands of its oppressors”, adding, “Schutz’s painting fetishises black death and normalises the violence that black people experience daily”. 

Artist Hannah Black has written an open letter to the curators and staff at the Biennial asking them to remove and destroy the work. In it, she said: “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”, adding, “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. 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 letter has been cosigned by other artists including Juliana Huxtable, who recently took part in a show called Excerpt that aims to, “challenge the power of dominant written knowledge in the construction of black identity, culture, and history”. You can read the full letter here. The first version, put out on Facebook, included several signatures from non-black people, but was later edited. 

“In response to some helpful criticism, I’m now only including Black co-signs,” Black wrote in a new post. “Non-Black people super very welcome to help get painting destroyed tho in other ways.”

She added: “Remember, contemporary art is a fundamentally white supremacist institution despite all our nice friends, so most of what happens in it is politically meaningless. But the painting should still be destroyed, tho.”

In an emailed statement to the Guardian, Schutz responded: “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”, and, “my engagement with this image was through empathy with his mother”. This isn’t really an appropriate response to the accusation of exploiting black pain – there are many mothers Schutz could have chosen to identify with that doesn’t co-opt black experience and trauma.

Curators Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks met with Bright to discuss his protest on Tuesday. Lew said in a statement to Artnet: “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.”

In a similarly response, Locks added: “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.” Despite the growing challenge, there are currently no plans by the Whitney to remove the painting.