Forget That White Lady’s Emmett Till Painting; These Black Artists Are Truly Representing at the Whitney Biennial

Henry Taylor, THE TIMES THAY AINT A CHANGING, FAST ENOUGH!, 2017. Acrylic on canvas, 72 by 96 inches (182.9 by 243.8 cm).(Collection of the artist; courtesy of Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo. Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art)

At this year’s Whitney Biennial, the award for the most discussed and divisive piece of art easily goes to white artist Dana Schutz’s painting of the dead body of Emmett Till called Open Casket. The painting has provoked protests and sparked debates about white exploitation of black trauma, freedom of expression and censorship.

As a free-speech absolutist, I believe artists have the right to paint whatever they want, just as strongly as I believe that protesters have the right to protest said artists. But calls to remove or even destroy the painting are a dangerously slippery slope. It reminds me of the time when then-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani threatened to cut off funding for the Brooklyn Museum of Art if the museum didn’t remove Christopher Ofili’s painting The Holy Virgin Mary, which used elephant dung as one of its elements. And my goal in life is never to be on the same side as Giuliani on anything.


But overshadowed in the scrum about cultural appropriation and artistic freedom are the works of several black artists featured in the Biennial. Among the 63 individual artists and collectives are roughly a dozen or so well-known and emerging black artists, including Torey Thornton, Kamasi Washington, Maya Stovall, Leilah Weinraub, Cameron Rowland and Lyle Ashton Harris. The following artists have some particularly compelling work:

Henry Taylor

Installation view of Henry Taylor, The 4th (2012-2017) and THE TIMES THAY AIN’T A CHANGING, FAST ENOUGH!, 2017. (Collection of the artist; courtesy of Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo. Matthew Carasella/Whitney Museum of Art)

The Los Angeles-based artist has several compelling paintings in this year’s Biennial, but the standout piece is the hauntingly vivid depiction of the fatal shooting of Philando Castile. Called THE TIMES THAY AIN’T A CHANGING, FAST ENOUGH!, the painting shows Castile’s final moments captured on video by Castile’s fiancee, Diamond Reynolds, who livestreamed the aftermath of his shooting by a Minnesota police officer on Facebook last year.

Even though unintended, Taylor’s work has been drawn into the debate over Shutz’s piece, with some people wondering why his depiction of black trauma is acceptable and hers is not. The easy and obvious answer is that he is a black man who knows something about black trauma (his grandfather was shot and killed at age 33); but more importantly, over his decadeslong career, Taylor has been painting portraits of black life that are often autobiographical or historical and always unapologetically black. In a video discussion about his artistic process, Taylor gets to the heart of the matter: “We don’t worry about our kids getting lynched; now we worry about them getting shot.”


Deana Lawson

Deana Lawson, The Key, 2016. Inkjet print, dimensions unknown. (Collection of the artist; courtesy of the artist; Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago; and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York)

At first glance, Deana Lawson’s photos seem rather ordinary—the everyday snapshots one might find in a black family album: a father holding up an infant while a friend, who is cut off from the scene except for a tattooed arm on a couch, holds a stack of money; a grandmother posing in her living room with her grandson, who bears a ring on a heart-shaped pillow; a man named “Uncle Mack” who stands in a corner holding a shotgun, with a portrait of him and his two children hanging on a wall over his left shoulder.

But in reality, her photos are highly staged, oftentimes with complete strangers, with the intention of capturing the grace and dignity of everyday black life, which provides a counterpoint to the negative images of black people seen every day in the media and popular culture. “Every day is political, the everyday is personal,” Lawson says of her work.


Pope.L, aka William Pope.L

Installation view of Pope.L, aka William Pope.L, Claim (Whitney Version), 2017. (Collection of the artist; courtesy of Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York. Matthew Carasella/Whitney Museum of Art)

Multimedia artist Pope.L’s installation, Claim (Whitney Version), features 2,755 slices of bologna pinned to its wall, and each slice bears a portrait of someone who is supposedly Jewish. The piece raises questions of collective identity and how people turn abstract when reduced to numbers. Within the structure is a typewritten statement, with copy-edit marks from the artists, that ponders whether the rotting, dripping bologna represents “the flesh returning back to world” or maybe the slices are “mourning a haunted order.”

In any case, no matter what you get from the piece, you’ll have to admit that using bologna as art is probably the blackest shit you’ll ever see at the Whitney.


Cauleen Smith

Cauleen Smith, In the Wake, 2017. Satin, poly-satin, quilted-pleather, upholstery, wool felt, wool velvet, indigo-dyed silk-rayon velvet, indigo-dyed silk satin, embroidery floss, metallic thread, acrylic fabric paint, acrylic hair beads, acrylic barrettes, satin cord, polyester fringe, poly-silk tassels, plastic-coated paper and sequins; 60 by 48 inches. (Collection of the artist; courtesy of Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago, and Kate Werble Gallery, New York)

Exhausted and disgusted by the constant stream of videos showing police killing unarmed black people, filmmaker and visual artist Cauleen Smith created a series of hand-stitched banners, which hang throughout the museum, with phrases like, “No wonder I go under,” “We were not meant to survive” or “My pathology is your profit.” On the back of each banner are a series of symbols that repeat, like guns, pencil and microphones.

In the audio guide to her exhibit, she explained, “The pencil, the microphone and the camera aperture are all to me these instruments of expression. They’re apertures for a voice, for initiative, for articulation, and so the pencil becomes this very flexible tool that can even be a weapon, can be kindling for a fire. It can do a lot of different things, not all of them affirmative, or affirming.”

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Genetta M. Adams

Genetta M. Adams is Managing Editor of The Root.