Abstracting the savaged body of Emmett Till

Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket raises many questions about depiction of racial violence in contemporary US society.

Emmett Till exhibit AP
The photographs depict a 'realism' or an 'indexicality' that abstraction in the painting distorts, diluting the power of witness, writes Jayawardane [AP]

In August 1955, a 14-year-old African American boy from Chicago, Emmett Till, was visiting relatives in small town Mississippi. He went to buy bubblegum at Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market. While he was there, a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, a cashier, accused Emmett of whistling at her and making untoward physical and verbal advances.

Three nights later, Bryant’s husband and his half-brother kidnapped the young boy, bludgeoned him until his face was unrecognisable, shot him to death, and threw his body into the Tallahatchie River.

Although the men were apprehended later and charged, an all-white, all-male jury acquitted them. And early in 2017, historian Timothy Tyson revealed that Carolyn Bryant admitted to him, privately, that Till had never made an advance on her.

Till’s story was made all the more powerfully visible because his mother – Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley – insisted that her son’s body be transported to Chicago, and that his coffin remain open, against pleas to close the door on his death. Thousands came to pay their respects over five days and became witnesses of the brutality done to Till.

But it was because Till’s mother permitted photographs of her son to be published in Jet Magazine that the savagery of US white supremacy became visible to a greater audience. That is where the power of photography – with its reputation for presenting an “indexical” representation of reality – speaks authoritatively.

Emmett Till was 14 when he was kidnapped and brutally murdered [AP]
Emmett Till was 14 when he was kidnapped and brutally murdered [AP]

Making a spectacle of Till’s death

Although photography has also been used to prop up mythologies about those who are politically and socially disenfranchised in order to further diminish that group, it can also help that disenfranchised group to produce counter-narratives questioning prevailing myths about their communities. And sometimes, as in the case of the unbearably painful images of Till’s face in Jet magazine, photography allows us to offer evidence, proof of the truth of our experiences – precisely because of the prevailing belief that photographs do not lie. 

More than 60 years after Emmett Till’s murder, debates about whether there are more (or less) ethical ways in which we can approach the brutality done to his body continue.

Most recently, the furore is about a contemporary abstract painting – titled “Open Casket” – of Emmett Till, included in the Whitney Biennale in New York City. Many have been outraged by Whitney Biennale curators Mia Locks and Christopher Y Lew’s decision to – as they saw it – make a spectacle of Till’s death, only this time, in a context devoid of the respectful architectural, religious, psychological, and emotional frameworks required for mourning.

To hang his suffering on a white wall seemed tantamount to instrumentalising a brutalised black body in order to buy art critic approval, to add intellectual and political weight to the Whitney Biennale, and generally create buzz.

READ MORE: Know your history – Understanding racism in the US

Here was the 14-year-old Till, alone again in the face of a brutal defacement in the white cube spaces of a museum. His defaced figure is hung next to screens of moving image works by a black performance artist, Maya Stovall, who combines ballet and contemporary dance performances in front of liquor stores in her native Detroit. In the small room behind the wall on which the painting of Till is hung, the cosmic jazz of Kamasi Washington’s Harmony of Difference plays again and again on a loop, delivering an ethereal, eternal message of the possibility of finding confluences beyond divisiveness and difference. 

 Parker Bright, an African American artist, is protesting against the painting by partially blocking it from view [Michael Bilsborough]
 Parker Bright, an African American artist, is protesting against the painting by partially blocking it from view [Michael Bilsborough]

Much of the ensuing critique of “Open Casket” focused on whether the painter, Dana Schutz, a white woman, can take it for granted that she can represent black suffering, and whether a museum can put that suffering up as part of a spectacle. Over the first two days of the Biennale’s opening week, Parker Bright, an African American artist, has stood in peaceful protest of this depiction of Till. He positions himself in front of the painting wearing a T-shirt that spells “Black Death Spectacle” on the back, partially obscuring it from the view.

The debate is, essentially, about who, in America's fraught racial landscape, has the right to represent the experiences of suffering


Others, including black British artist Hannah Black, have called for the destruction of the painting, noting, in a Facebook post, “White free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights. The painting must go.”

The debate is, essentially, about who, in America’s fraught racial landscape, has the right to represent the experiences of suffering. If those the painter wishes to depict are people whose historical and present-day experiences she is exempt from, can she accurately represent them?

Does Schutz have the historical acumen – the weight of the experience of historical trauma as well as the resilience required to survive it – to depict Till in his casket? Scholar Christina Sharpe contends in an interview on Hyperallergic, that the debate is less about cultural appropriation and free speech “but rather, [about] intimacy and our different relationships to violence”.

While black people lined up for blocks to pay their respects to Till in 1955, Sharpe notes that there were no white people in that line. And there is no solemn line to see this exposed, perpendicular view of him at the Whitney Biennale. Further, Sharpe calls our attention to the ways in which Schutz’s painting works, when compared to the way that the photographs – published only in Jet – functioned at the time:

Mamie Till Mobley makes the decision, against much advice, to have those photographs of her son published. It was not mainstream media – or white media – that published those images …They were for black people, because Jet was a black publication. They weren’t meant to create empathy or shame or awareness from white viewers. They were meant to speak to and to move a Black audience.”

Abstracting black experiences of violence

Along with the debate about the politics of representation, there is the danger of abstracting black experiences of actual violence. The historical experiences of violence are very much a part of the present experience of being black in the US today, and the acquittal of the men responsible for the brutality reverberates across time to the present moment.

“Open Casket” depicts the face of Till in a distorted, abstract manner – and is meant to capture and comment on the reasons why Till’s mother chose to have an open casket, to show the world what white men had done to her child, rather than choose to hide the effects of their savagery with a quick burial.

In an interview on NBC News, Lisa Whittington, another painter and educator whose artwork engages audiences in remembering Till, points out that in Schutz’s painting of Till in a clean, white tux affixed with a red flower, the “horror was too gentle”; in “downplay[ing] the details and the emotion his death represented” Schutz makes it feel as though “Emmett’s death was easy”.

Where Till’s eye was gouged out, Schutz makes a criss-cross of brushstrokes, using dark paint on the surface strokes to represent injury; and across his face, there is a broad, sweeping brushstroke that swoops the nose onto the side. Although a face is barely recognisable because Schutz uses techniques common to abstract painting in the geopolitical West since Picasso, there is no immediate understanding that the distortions we see are a result of violence. Instead, we see that the painter is playing with perspective and angles. Only traces of red paint hint at violence; a yellow halo-like structure around the head beatifies Till in his death, in spite of the violence done to him.

READ MORE: Museum sheds light on African-American history

I wondered why Schutz did not attempt a diptych or triptych, in which she included the presence of Carolyn Bryant – the valourisation of whose sexual honour set Till’s torture and death into motion; why the two men who killed him, the jury who acquitted them after an hour of deliberation, or the Mississippi town’s ordinary white inhabitants were not a part of her painting’s narrative. Yes, they are present, in their absence. But as with so many depictions of violence done to black persons, removing the explicit presence of white perpetrators diminishes the virulence of white supremacy and community complicity.

But early audiences at the Whitney Biennale did not seem to be thinking through these factors before they were made explicit by protest. The average Biennale wanderer barely gave “Open Casket” any notice; as I walked through on the opening day for members, I heard one saying, “What is that ugly painting?”

 Emmett Till's mother wanted people around the world to see the very real damage to her son's face, writes Jayawardane [AP]
 Emmett Till’s mother wanted people around the world to see the very real damage to her son’s face, writes Jayawardane [AP]

Coco Fusco rightfully argues, in Hyperallergic, that it would be foolish to go about blithely “damning abstraction by associating it with erasure and irresponsibility”; she reminds us that Theodore Adorno noted that “realist representations of atrocity offer simple voyeuristic pleasure over a more profound grasp of the horrors of history.” Yet, in choosing to alter the violent, physical distortions to Till’s face, through using techniques of abstraction, Schutz diffused the political importance of having an open casket. 

The photographs depict a “realism” or an “indexicality” that abstraction in the painting distorts, diluting the power of witness. The photographs of Till’s body, and of Mamie Till-Mobley’s dignity and pain made the ordinary savagery of America’s sociopolitical landscapes impossible to avoid. Schutz may have aimed at showing how one’s humanity is distorted by violence, how silent, complicit witnesses are also deeply distorted by brutal acts. But when the lives of the majority of the audience that filters through the doors of the Whitney are so far removed from the realities faced by the politically, economically and socially disenfranchised of America – they become less the “witness” and more participants in the violence of gawking.

OPINION: Michael Brown, racism and America’s open casket

The Whitney Biennale curators organised one of the most well-represented shows in its history, with a “diverse” group of artists. Yet, representation through name-checking certain demographic groups who are underrepresented in art – and the sociopolitical arena of one’s nation – is clearly not enough. Some may think that in these fraught political times in the US, that “debate” over a painting is a waste of time.

But this “art talk” that people may dismiss is about our regard for each other, and how we choose to behave towards those we deem “other” in literature we write, in paintings, in policies, in laws. The same dynamics of representation and identity-construction, significant to how African Americans shaped the processes of demanding justice in the United States, remain true today for those on the receiving end of Donald Trump and his administration’s white supremacist policies. 

Photographs allowed Till’s mother to represent the pain and brutal distortion her son – and she – experienced in a way that she chose. “Open Casket” disfigures that powerful statement, even if done in a well-meaning manner. So much distortion is accompanied with well-meaning motives.

That powerful, painful choice to unmask and unveil the effects of white supremacist violence in America, and the power inherent in making it plain, in not hiding from repercussions, is made weak – if not altogether removed – by the elisions inherent in abstraction.

Editor’s note: An eariler version of this article incorrectly claimed that Parker Bright’s protest lasted over a week. He protested two days. 

M Neelika Jayawardane is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York-Oswego, and an Honorary Research Associate at the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa (CISA), University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa). She is a founding member of the online magazine, Africa is a Country, where she was senior editor and contributor from 2010 to 2016. Among numerous published texts, Jayawardane recently contributed the main essay for the South Africa pavilion’s 57th Venice Biennale catalogue, and essays for The Walther Collection’s publication (2017) and numerous other artists’ catalogues. Her writing is featured in Transitions, Aperture, Contemporary&, Art South Africa, Contemporary Practices: Visual Art from the Middle East, Even, and Research in African Literatures. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.