Emmett Till’s Coffin, a Hangman’s Scaffold and a Debate Over Cultural Appropriation

Emmett Till’s Coffin, a Hangman’s Scaffold and a Debate Over Cultural Appropriation

The Art

Mr. Durant’s wood-and-steel scaffold, made in 2012 and previously exhibited without incident in Europe at venues including Documenta 13, is a composite of the gallows used in seven United States government-sanctioned hangings from 1859 to 2006. Those include the 1862 execution of 38 Dakota men in Mankato, Minn., ordered by President Abraham Lincoln — the largest mass execution in the nation’s history.

Ms. Schutz’s 2016 painting is based on a photograph of the beaten body of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American murdered after speaking to a white woman in 1955. Till’s mother requested an open coffin at his funeral so that the world could witness what had been done to her son.


Dana Schutz, in 2006. Her painting “Open Casket,” based on a photograph of Emmett Till, remains on view at the Whitney Biennial. Credit Ruby Washington/The New York Times

The Outcry

On Saturday, some 100 members of Minnesota’s Native American communities gathered outside the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden to protest what they perceived as the insensitivity of Mr. Durant’s sculpture to their personal traumatic history and demand that it be removed.

On March 17 and 18, a small group of protesters blocked Ms. Schutz’s painting from view at the Whitney gallery, objecting to a white artist’s using and potentially profiting from an image of violence against a black person. An open letter on Facebook by the artist Hannah Black, and signed by other artists, curators and critics, called for the painting to be removed and destroyed. In the debate that quickly went viral, a counterwave of voices denounced the censorship and destruction of artworks.

The reaction from African-American artists was not monolithic. Kara Walker noted that “the history of painting is full of graphic violence and narratives that don’t necessarily belong to the artists own life,” but may inspire “deeper inquiries and better art. It can only do this when it is seen.”


Ms. Schutz’s “Open Casket.” Credit Collection of the artist

The Artist’s Intent

Mr. Durant, in a statement on Saturday, wrote that he made “Scaffold” to speak out about “the racial dimension of the criminal justice system in the United States, ranging from lynchings to mass incarceration to capital punishment.” He intended the work “as a learning space for people like me, white people who have not suffered the effects of a white supremacist society and who may not consciously know that it exists.” But, he added, “your protests have shown me that I made a grave miscalculation in how my work can be received by those in a particular community.”

In an interview in March with artnet, Ms. Schutz said that she made the painting last summer, after a series of shootings of black men by the police, in part out of empathy for Emmett Till’s mother. “I could never, ever know her experience, but I know what it is to love your child,” she said. “It’s a problematic painting, and I knew that getting into it. I do think that it is better to try to engage something extremely uncomfortable, maybe impossible, and fail, than to not respond at all.”

The Museum’s Response

The contexts of the two pieces, with Mr. Durant’s sculpture displayed outdoors in a public park and Ms. Schutz’s painting indoors in a temporary exhibition, have different parameters and may have had an impact on how each institution reacted. The Walker’s executive director, Olga Viso, expressing deep regret at the “anger and sadness” that “Scaffold” had brought to local Native Americans, quickly agreed with Mr. Durant to remove the gallows structure from the sculpture garden — a space where children often play.

On Wednesday, Dakota elders led a private mediation with leaders from the Walker, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, and Mr. Durant. The artist transferred the intellectual property rights of his work to the Dakota Oyate. The entire sculpture will be dismantled and burned in a four-day ceremony beginning Friday in the Fort Snelling area, a site that is sacred to the Dakota people.

At the Whitney, Ms. Schutz’s painting remains on view through the run of the Biennial, ending June 11. The Biennial has long served as a barometer of the most controversial issues of the day. “Artists have to be free to pick their subject matter; otherwise, we end up in a role of being a censor,” said Adam Weinberg, the director. “Christopher Lew and Mia Locks, as the Biennial curators, selected Dana’s work as part of the broader themes of the exhibition dealing with race, inclusion and violence.” The controversy has prompted the museum to initiate an open forum on Saturdays called “Ethics of Looking,” with the next session on Saturday. “It addresses who is allowed to speak for whom and what is appropriate,” Mr. Weinberg said. “It’s complicated.”

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