Dana Schutz: I made the painting Open Casket in the summer of 2016, a summer that felt like a state of emergency. Each day there felt like there was another shooting or mass shooting, as well as violent rallies filled with hate speech and racist and sexist rhetoric being part of mainstream politics, all recorded with camera phones as witness.

At this time there was a renewed attention in the media to the brutal murder of Emmett Till, and his mother’s decision to leave his casket open, to let “the world see what she had seen.” Till’s photograph, like a still-open wound, felt analogous to the horrific events of the summer. What had been hidden was now revealed in plain view.

I did not know if I could make this painting. I questioned who this subject belonged to. Was it the mother’s? The Black community’s? Is it all of our pain? Mamie Till Bradley, in her act of leaving the casket open, I believe wanted her son’s death to be America’s pain.

The painting is not the photograph of Emmett Till, and it was never intended to be. The photograph is an active, horrifying fact that is still working today. His open-casket funeral was his mother’s way of taking Emmett’s image and his body back, and giving the pain over to the world.

More than the photograph of Emmett Till, I relied on listening to Mamie Till Bradley’s verbal account of seeing her son, which oscillates between memory and observation. I thought of this as a social painting. This happened in America, and it’s still happening.


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