A white artist submitted his painting of the death of Tamir Rice to a Pittsburgh art festival—a work he said was meant to show his outrage over the killing. But the artist’s critics have accused him of “white voyeurism” and creating “a modern-day lynching postcard,” prompting him to withdraw from the show.
After the story gained local attention in late May, the public rallied to the side of artist Tom Megalis. But organizers of the Three Rivers Art Festival, who had allowed him to withdraw his painting, said it was too late to incorporate it back into the exhibit. And the controversy is expected to be a central topic next week, when the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council hosts a panel on “cultural appropriation and the arts.”
The Pittsburgh story echoes the uproar earlier this year after the Whitney in New York displayed a white artist’s painting of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy lynched in 1955.
Critics demanded that the Whitney not only remove but destroy the painting, calling it exploitative and saying a white artist had “nothing to say to the Black community about Black trauma.”
Megalis told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette he was surprised by the backlash, and that he had hoped his painting, “Within 2 Seconds,” could document the tragedy and injustice of Rice’s death.
A white police officer shot the 12-year-old boy, who was holding a pellet gun. A grand jury decided against indicting the officers involved, though they did face administrative charges after a year-long investigation by the police department. The city of Cleveland also settled a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Rice’s family.
“My initial reaction to this was—when the two white officers were found not guilty, when they didn’t indict them—it was outrage,” Megalis said. “I had outrage against the white officers, not the prosecutor. … It’s an image I felt needed to be shown again and again to show what happened. A bad situation. A tragic situation. In some ways, it’s a tribute to Tamir Rice. … He loved to draw, and he’ll never get to draw. Now you’re in a painting and you’ll be in a painting as long as this painting exists.”
But Aubrayia Dowdy, a local black activist, said it was disrespectful for the last depiction of Rice to be “of his dead body and his sister getting dragged away by police.”
She called for the art to be destroyed; Megalis has said he will neither apologize for his painting nor destroy it.
Celeste Scott, another local activist, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the painting was “the cultural reduction of a black child, depicting the pool of blood in the snow.”
And Tereneh Mosley, a black designer who will participate in the upcoming panel on art and cultural appropriation, said the painting constituted the “erasure of black Pittsburgh.”
“She added that she was ‘open’ to a dialogue with Mr. Megalis and other white artists,” the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported, “but ‘not with a dead black body stretched on a painter’s canvas. Not with the blood of my family. That’s disrespectful.’” Megalis declined to participate in the panel, the Gazette added.
In the controversy over the Emmett Till painting, one of critics’ concerns was that a white artist could profit from black tragedy. But Megalis said he wouldn’t sell the painting, and that he’s actually tried to donate it to non-profits that serve in communities of color.
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum.