[SUBMISSION] Please read & share Hannah Black’s open letter to the curators and staff of the Whitney Biennial
To the curators and staff of the Whitney biennial:
I am writing to ask you to remove Dana Schutz’s painting “Open Casket” and with the urgent recommendation that the painting be destroyed and not entered into any market or museum.
As you know, this painting depicts the dead body of 14-year-old Emmett Till in the open casket that his mother chose, saying, “Let the people see what I’ve seen.” That even the disfigured corpse of a child was not sufficient to move the white gaze from its habitual cold calculation is evident daily and in a myriad of ways, not least the fact that this painting exists at all. In brief: 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.
Although Schutz’s intention may be to present white shame, this shame is not correctly represented as a painting of a dead Black boy by a white artist – those non-Black artists who sincerely wish to highlight the shameful nature of white violence should first of all stop treating Black pain as raw material. 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.
Emmett Till’s name has circulated widely since his death. It has come to stand not only for Till himself but also for the mournability (to each other, if not to everyone) of people marked as disposable, for the weight so often given to a white woman’s word above a Black child’s comfort or survival, and for the injustice of anti-Black legal systems. Through his mother’s courage, Till was made available to Black people as an inspiration and warning. Non-Black people must accept that they will never embody and cannot understand this gesture: the evidence of their collective lack of understanding is that Black people go on dying at the hands of white supremacists, that Black communities go on living in desperate poverty not far from the museum where this valuable painting hangs, that Black children are still denied childhood. Even if Schutz has not been gifted with any real sensitivity to history, if Black people are telling her that the painting has caused unnecessary hurt, she and you must accept the truth of this. The painting must go.
Ongoing debates on the appropriation of Black culture by non-Black artists have highlighted the relation of these appropriations to the systematic oppression of Black communities in the US and worldwide, and, in a wider historical view, to the capitalist appropriation of the lives and bodies of Black people with which our present era began. Meanwhile, a similarly high-stakes conversation has been going on about the willingness of a largely non-Black media to share images and footage of Black people in torment and distress or even at the moment of death, evoking deeply shameful white American traditions such as the public lynching. Although derided by many white and white-affiliated critics as trivial and naive, discussions of appropriation and representation go to the heart of the question of how we might seek to live in a reparative mode, with humility, clarity, humour and hope, given the barbaric realities of racial and gendered violence on which our lives are founded. I see no more important foundational consideration for art than this question, which otherwise dissolves into empty formalism or irony, into a pastime or a therapy.
The curators of the Whitney biennial surely agree, because they have staged a show in which Black life and anti-Black violence feature as themes, and been approvingly reviewed in major publications for doing so. Although it is possible that this inclusion means no more than that blackness is hot right now, driven into non-Black consciousness by prominent Black uprisings and struggles across the US and elsewhere, I choose to assume as much capacity for insight and sincerity in the biennial curators as I do in myself. Which is to say – we all make terrible mistakes sometimes, but through effort the more important thing could be how we move to make amends for them and what we learn in the process. The painting must go.
Thank you for reading Hannah Black Artist/writer Whitney ISP 2013-14
Co-signatories/with the support of:
Amal Alhaag Hannah Assebe Anwar Batte Charmaine Bee Parker Bright Vivian Crockett Jareh Das Aria Dean Chrissy Etienne Hamishi Farah Ja'Tovia Gary Juliana Huxtable Anisa Jackson Hannah Catherine Jones Devin Kenny Carolyn Lazard Taylor LeMelle Tiona Nekkia McClodden Sandra Mujinga Precious Okoyomon Emmanuel Olunkwa Imani Robinson Andrew Ross Christina Sharpe Misu Simbiatu Dominique White Kandis Williams
This morning, we’re getting a first look at the 2017 Biennial. Here’s Raúl de Nieves’s site-specific work on the fifth floor. The artist covered six floor-to-ceiling windows with eighteen “stained-glass” panels he made using paper, wood, glue, tape, beads, and acetate sheets. They create a vivid backdrop for the beaded sculptures, especially in the morning sun!
In the 1970s, Brazil was living under a military dictatorship. So when São Paulo’s biennial art exhibition happened in 1973, many artists were conflicted. French artist Fred Forest found a unique way to protest the censorship imposed by Brazil’s ruling junto. He organized a group of marchers to carry blank signs through the city. Any true dissidents or students would have been imprisoned and tortured. So Forest hired professional sandwich-board men as sign-carriers. They could not be held accountable for what that day’s sign said.
The press published the marchers’ route, and the public quickly understood. The blank signs were saying what no one could say. Although it was against the law for more than three people to congregate in the street, Forest’s march attracted nearly 2,000 followers, and onlookers showered them with ticker tape from their balconies. Forest himself was arrested quickly. But he was protected as a foreign artist, and after some hours of questioning, they let him go.
Justin Leroy presents on the overlapping histories of race and financial
innovation, from slave insurance to social entrepreneurship, in
conjunction with Cameron Rowland’s project for the 2017 Whitney
Biennial. Leroy teaches nineteenth-century U.S. history at the
University of California, Davis; his book Freedom’s Limit: Racial
Capitalism and the Afterlives of Slavery, is forthcoming from Columbia
Janine Antoni Gnaw, 1992 600 lbs. of lard on marble pedestal gnawed on by the artist, also displayed in the Whitney Biennial with 130 artist-made lipsticks with pigment, beeswax, and chewed lard removed from lard cube 24 x 24 x 24 inches
Don’t miss Larry Bell’s Pacific Red II, which debuted as part of the 2017 Whitney Biennial this past spring. On view through this Sunday, the work consists of six laminated glass cubes; each measuring six by eight feet and enclosing another six-by-four-foot glass box. The multiple surfaces interplay and respond to their urban surroundings.
[Visitors explore Larry Bell’s Pacific Red II, 2017 (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, March 17–October 1, 2017). Photograph by Ian Allen]