At the world renowned Whitney Biennial in New York City hangs a painting of Emmett Till in his casket, which has incited anger, debate and a petition for removal
The piece, 'Open Casket,' was created by Brooklyn-based artist Dana Schutz, who is white
"The photograph of Emmett Till felt analogous to the time, what was hidden was now revealed," Schutz said. "I was struck by Mamie Till's account of witnessing her son and her grief and rage. Her gesture of leaving the casket open was about visibility, sharing pain and witnessing. I wanted the painting to be intimate, not grotesque but I wanted to show the brutality."
Due to its inclusion in the highly populated Whitney Biennial, the piece has received positive and negative attention
New York City-based artist and curator Parker Bright documented his protest as well as conversations with spectators
"Recently in media, Black death is sensationalized and has been for years. It's creating a spectacle out of Black bodies," Bright stated during his protest. While speaking to other viewers of the work, Bright added that an abstraction of a photograph of Emmett's face, which has already been brutalized, is "just an abstract painting."
Bright also did not understand why Schutz needed to represent violence in her painting because it was adding more violence to the horrific beating Emmett suffered.
Berlin-based artist Hannah Black penned an open letter to the museum asking for the paintings removal and suggested the painting be destroyed
In the letter, Black asked the Whitney Biennial to "remove Dana Schutz' painting 'Open Casket'" and she added an "urgent recommendation that the painting be destroyed."
"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."
Other people, both artists and non-artists, have echoed Black's sentiments and questioned why Schutz did not paint from her own perspective
Art professor Dr. Lisa Whittington said she has no issue with white artists taking on difficult issues. However, she questions the point of view Schutz used to create the painting.
"I would ask her, why she did not paint the Emmett Till Story from a white woman's point of view? Is there nothing that as a white woman that she would want to say? Especially in recently knowing that the woman who accused Emmett Till has admitted that she lied. Where is the artwork that represents her lies?" Whittington told NBC. "The two men who lynched Emmett? Where is the artwork about them? Does she have nothing to say there?"
Others have argued that art should be able to cross racial lines and forbidding an artist to speak on a subject is censorship
Schutz has spoken out about the controversy and also stated that piece is not and will never be 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 added the work is "not a rendering of the photograph but is more an engagement with the loss."
She's also confirmed the painting "was never and is not for sale."