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In August 1955, Emmett Till, 14 years old, was brutally beaten, shot in the head, and dumped in a river in Mississippi. Carolyn Bryant, a white woman, alleged he had called her something “unutterable,” and told her he had done “something” with “white women before.” She told her husband. He and his half-brother took Till’s life for a crime Bryant recently claimed to not entirely remember. “You tell these stories for so long that they seem true,” she said, which seems like a particularly roundabout way of saying she lied. They were never convicted.
Mamie Till, Emmett’s mother, held an open casket funeral. An image of Till’s mutilated body was printed in Jet magazine, which had a predominantly black audience. Audience matters. “Let the people see what I’ve seen,” she said, pushing his death into the spotlight and denying the grotesque the shaded corners of seclusion it so often demands.
Images of black boys, black men, dying, come faster now to a wider audience. Maybe we are more accustomed. Maybe numbed. Maybe at too much of a distance. Maybe videos, pixel on screen, allow everyone to think they exist at a distance.
The Whitney Biennial is in its 78th iteration this year. Curated by Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, it features the work of 63 artists and collectives, and aims to “gauge the state of art in America today.” Is to gauge the state of art to gauge the state of the nation? The answer rests in the audience’s reaction.
Dana Schutz is one of the artists with work on display. Somewhere within the gallery hangs Open Casket, an abstracted image of Till, drawn from the image reproduced in Jet. If the horror of the photograph comes from the distortion it depicts, the fact that the son Mamie buried looked nothing like the son she knew, then the horror of the painting comes from the fact that Schutz has rendered him again unrecognisable.
There have been calls for the painting’s removal, as of yet unsuccessful. Hannah Black’s open letter to the Whitney is eloquent, moving, and worth reading.
I, a Polynesian woman, have little to add to Till’s narrative. But there are things we can draw from that of Open Casket. What I want to ask is how does history inform the present, how does it construct the present, and who has the right to represent it? Images are loaded. Whispering sweet nothings into the present’s ear, they present the opportunity to hijack history.
In 2015, Jono Rotman’s large format studio portraits of Mongrel Mob members were exhibited at the City Gallery Wellington. They represent a different kind of distortion, closer to home. Search his work online and you’ll get headlines like “These Stunning Photos of New Zealand’s Largest Gang Will Give You Sleepless Nights”; “New Zealand’s Most Notorious Gang Pose For Photos That Will Make You Quiver”; “Staring Death In The Face”.
Gangs act as a collective way of defining your existence, when as an individual, or minority group, you are otherwise denied that autonomy. They do bad things. They do good things. They are built out of urbanisation and migration. They are attempts to build community. They are acts of imperial resistance. They have many histories. They are easily sensationalised.
Rotman hoped that his audience would be “forced to consider each man in person and consider deeply the forces that made him.” Schutz claimed art as “a space for empathy, a vehicle for connection. I don’t believe that people can ever really know what it is like to be someone else (I will never know the fear that black parents may have) but neither are we all completely unknowable.” Rotman and Schutz both display, I think, a kind of knowingness — or maybe a wilful ignorance — of the nature of their audience: it is them. It is white. It is loud. And it denies their subjects a voice by speaking right over them.