Saturday, 7 May 2022

Whose story is it to tell?

National Museum of African-American History and Culture, Washington D.C. (Photo: Justin T. Gellerson / NYT)

I first heard of Emmet Till in 2017, when Dana Schutz’s painting “Open Casket”, on display at the Whitney Biennale, sparked a huge controversy. Emmet Till was brutally murdered, lynched, in 1955, after being accused of having offended a white woman in her grocery store. This murder boosted the Civil Rights Movement in the US. Emmet's mother, Mamie Till, asked that the coffin remain open during her son's funeral for people to see. Her words welcome visitors to the National Museum of African American History and Culture: “Let the people see what I have seen. I think everybody needs to know what had happened to Emmet Till.”

In the past, I wrote about this and other cases in a post entitled “Cultural Appropriation: Less Gatekeepers, More Critical Thinkers”. In 2017, there were critics who argued that Schutz, being white, shouldn't address this story, it wasn't hers to tell. Activists stood in front of the painting, to obstruct the view, and there were people who asked the painting to be destroyed. On the other hand, Cuban art historian Coco Fusco warned: “Presuming that calls for censorship and destruction constitute a legitimate response to perceived injustice leads us down a very dark path. (…) The authority to speak for or about black culture is not guaranteed by skin color or lineage, and it can be undermined by untruths. My 25 years of teaching art have shown me that a combination of ignorance about history and the supremacy of formalism in art education — more than overt racism — underlie the failure of most artists of any ethnicity to address racial issues effectively.”

I came across this story again when I recently read Laura Raicovich's book Culture strike: Art and museums in an age of protest. The author quotes different critics. Artist Pastiche Lumumba argued that “It is insensitive and gratuitous for the artist, primarily – then the curators and the museum – to willingly participate in the long tradition of white people sharing and circulating images of anti-Black violence.” Artist Hannah Black stated that “Non-Black people must accept that they will never embody and cannot understand this gesture [Mamie Till asking for the coffin to be left open]. (…) If Black people are telling her [Dana Schutz] that the painting has caused unnecessary hurt, she and you must accept the truth of this. The painting must go.” Raicovich further cites Coco Fusco who, in response to Hannah Black, said, “She presumes an ability to speak for all black people that smacks of a cultural nationalism that has rarely served black women, and that once upon a time was levied to keep black British out of conversations about black culture America.” Raicovich aligns with critics of the painting's exhibition. To Dana Schutz's statement ("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. Their pain is your pain. My engagement with this image was through empathy with his mother.”) Raicovich responded: “The objections to this sentiment are clear; as a white woman, she has no idea what it means to be a mother of a Black child.”

Protest at the Whitney Museum (Image taken from Dazed

I learned from Raicovich's book that there are those who argue that stories of violence against black people belong to black artists; that white artists should portray the perpetrators. I still don't agree with the idea that one can dictate the subjects with which any artist can get involved or not. Therefore, I found the discussion around the work itself much more necessary and relevant. Christina Sharpe, professor of English Literature and Black Studies, says the abstracted surface of Schutz’s painting nullifies, contains or indeed abandons the unobscured violence relayed by the photograph Mamie Till-Mobley gave permission to reproduce. Artist Lyle Ashton Harris said that “Any redemptive horror that is in the original photograph has been silenced or muted by what is, in effect, an abstract painterly rendering of otherwise disturbingly uncompromising image.” These analyses allowed me to look at Schutz's work in a different way, to understand in a different way the pain and anger that it caused, without, however, refusing her the right to approach this story.

Emmet Till's story was the subject of further controversy recently, when in March a petition signed by thousands of people demanded the cancellation of Emmet Till, A New American Opera (read here). The opera is based on a 2013 play, Down in My Heart, written by white playwright Clare Coss and black composer Mary D. Watkins. Mya Bishop, the student who started the petition, wrote: "If we are going to tell the story of Emmett Till, it should only be from a Black perspective, a Black writer, and permission and approval from Till's family. Clare Coss is out of line for taking it upon herself to turn Black trauma into entertainment and for exploiting a Black tragedy to propel her career and relieve her of her guilt about her whiteness."

Clare Coss (86 years old) and Mary D. Watkins (83 years old) both have memories of Emmet Till´s lynching. Watkins' involvement in the play is not mentioned in the petition, which focuses on the fact that there is a white creative in the team. Watkins issued a statement saying that she finds it "very disturbing" that people are condemning the piece without having "seen or heard it." (which reminds me of the way many people, in Portugal and in other countries, reacted to Catarina and the beauty of killing fascists, by Tiago Rodrigues). "They have jumped on the fact that the playwright is white, and assumed all kinds of things about the content of the play. Even though there are many artists of color involved in this project, the critics are assuming that we have had no impact on the final shape of the piece and that the playwright has somehow forced all of us to tell her story. It is an insult to me as a Black woman and to the company members who are African-American." A spokeswoman for the production company said in a statement that "The opera also addresses other themes and character POVs including the bravery of Till's uncle Mose Wright, the failure of the justice system, and the quandary of the white schoolteacher who represents the concepts of white silence and white supremacy."

We look at communities as if they were homogeneous, as if all white or black people or others thought, felt and positioned themselves in the same way in the face of different issues and dilemmas. We need to be open to different points of view, only in this way will we have the opportunity to know and better understand the nuances that these issues and life experiences present. I still think that this will not happen if we aim at controlling the narratives, defining what an artist or anyone else can and cannot talk about and, worse, if we consider it legitimate to obstruct access to a work of art or ask for its destruction.

Suggested readings:

Siddhartha Mitter, “What Does It Mean to Be Black and Look at This?” A Scholar Reflects on the Dana Schutz Controversy, in Hyperallergic, 24.3.2017

Coco Fusco, Censorship, not the painting, must go: On Dana Schutz's image of Emmet Till, in Hyperallergic, 27.3.2017

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