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In 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was brutally murdered by two white men in Mississippi for supposedly "offending" a white woman. The child was beaten, tortured and drowned. Till's mother, Mamie, brought her son home to Chicago. She insisted on an open casket at his funeral. A photograph of Emmett's body, published in Jet magazine, to this day remains one of the most searing, undeniable images of white violence on black Americans.
"Let the people see what I've seen," Mamie Till said. She wanted the world to see what those men had done to her son.
Emmett Till would have turned 76 on July 25.
These many years later, racism must still be confronted. But what happens when a white artist does so by painting an image of Emmett Till? Is it empathy, or appropriation? And should modern day art institutions support such artists?
Those are the intense questions swirling about a new exhibition which opened Wednesday at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston.
It features the work of abstract painter Dana Schutz. In 2016, she painted an abstracted image of Till in a work titled "Open Casket." It was put on display at the Whitney Museum in New York and was immediately controversial. Protesters demanded that the painting be removed, even destroyed.
The painting is not part of the ICA's exhibit of Schutz's work, but in an open letter to the ICA's chief curator, a group of local artists say exhibiting any of Schutz's work is "in line with a long tradition of white supremacy obscuring and ultimately erasing narratives of the continued genocide of Black and indigenous peoples."
"Please pull the show," they write. "This is not about censorship. This is about institutional accountability."
Barbara Lewis, the director of the William Monroe Trotter Institute for the Study of Black History and Culture at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. She is one of the contributing writers to the letter to the ICA. She tweets @trotterinstitut.
This segment aired on July 27, 2017.
- Activists To ICA: ‘Pull The Show’ Of New York Artist Behind Controversial Emmett Till Painting
- A Community Response to ICA, Boston: Re: upcoming Dana Schutz exhibition
- Should Art That Infuriates Be Removed?
- Why Dana Schutz Painted Emmett Till