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White Artist Defends Painting of Emmett Till’s Mutilated Body As ‘a Space for Empathy’

Emmett Till’s mother wanted the world to “see what I’ve seen” at his open-casket funeral. (Wikimedia Commons)

The mutilated corpse of Emmett Till is on public display once again, only this time it’s a painted version at New York City’s Whitney Museum of Art.

Dana Schutz defended her “Open Casket” painting, saying, “Art can be a space for empathy,” and noted it won’t go on sale. On Thursday, March 23, however, a letter initially believed to be from Schutz asked the biennial exhibition curators for the work’s “immediate removal.”

“Though it was not at all my intention to cause harm, many artists have come forward to announce that my depiction of suffering is in turn causing them suffering,” the letter allegedly from Schutz provided to the Cut read. “I cannot rightly protect a painting at the expense of human beings.

“If the removal of my painting has been called for by Black artists, writers and activists, I can no longer protect an object at their expense. The painting must go,” it continued, claiming funds from the sales of Schutz other biennial works will be directed to the Black liberation movement.

However, the Whitney Museum of American Art director of communications contacted Atlanta Black Star later Thursday and confirmed that the letter is not from Schutz and characterized it as a “hoax.”

“Open Casket,” which Schutz requested press not to circulate outside of protest images, was placed on display at the Whitney Friday, March 17, and demonstrations have since sprung up against it.

“Many in the Black art community are upset by the work,” Parker Bright told The Guardian.

“Open Casket” is an oil painting that showcases 14-year-old Till the way his mother Mamie Till wanted him to be presented at his funeral. The child was lynched and beaten in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman during a visit to Mississippi.

Dana Schultz has previously used Michael Jackson’s autopsy as a painting subject. (Saatchi Gallery)

Artist Hannah Black described Schutz’s painting as a white artist turning “Black suffering into profit and fun,” in her Tuesday, March 21 open letter.

“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,” Black wrote in a Tumblr letter that has been co-signed by more than 25 Black artists. “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 painting must go.”

One of the biennial curators, Christopher Y. Lew, defended “Open Casket,” telling The Guardian it was created in response to the rising number of Black Americans shot by police.

“We were aware that this was sensitive work on some level,” co-curator Mia Locks added. “The horrific murder of Till is something we all have to confront, regardless of race.”

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