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A Response to Emmett Till

"His attendance at the Till funeral nearly 70 years ago helped establish the course for his career."

- New York Times

When Richard Hunt was 19 years old, he witnessed the open-casket funeral of Emmett Till in Chicago. Till, who was abducted, tortured, and lynched in Mississippi in 1955, had grown up only two blocks from the Woodlawn home where Hunt was born. Till's mother, Mamie, decided to have an open casket for Emmett, and images of his mutilation circulated the world to show the torture and violence conducted on her son. Hunt would later remark, "What happened to [Till] could have happened to me." Hunt went on to create art shaped by this experience, which influenced both his artistic expression and his commitment to the cause of Civil Rights.

Hunt recently completed the sculptural model for a monument to Emmett Till, to be installed at Till’s childhood home, the Mamie and Emmett Till-Mobley House Museum and Theater, Chicago. It will commemorate Till and the tragic event that gave rise to the modern Civil Rights movement and to the shaping of Richard Hunt's career.


Richard Hunt, maquette for Hero Ascending, a monument to be installed in 2024 at Till's childhood home.

Hero's Head

Richard Hunt, Hero's Head, 1956, welded steel, 6 x 8 x 8 in., not including base. Collection of the artist.

"[The sculpture] Hero's Head, 1956, is what I would call my response to Emmett Till," says Richard Hunt. "There, I was making something from scraps of metal and then he was brought back to Chicago. We were basically the same age, the two of us. My parents came North through the great migration. The fact is that there are all these African Americans during that period of time, they got jobs in the steel mills, the stockyards, in Chicago or New York or what have you. Some people come to visit you and sometimes you go and visit them [in the South]. In these rural areas usually at a crossroads, there would be a general store. There he was with his family, and he went to the same kind of store I went to, down the road apiece. One could say, 'there but for the grace of God go I.' Then, his remains came back to Chicago. I was there with my mother and father, my sister, and my cousin who was part of the family. The thing is, it's this afternoon; the street is full, and people are standing on the street waiting to get in. So you know his remains are there at the church. Till's mother had an open casket. It was obviously something to respond to."


Richard Hunt, Prometheus, 1956, lithograph. Collection of the British Museum.

The British Museum recently acquired a work Richard Hunt created soon after the lynching of Emmett Till - Prometheus, 1956. Below is an excerpt of the British Museum curator Catherine Daunt's exploration into this work: 

A few months later, in the spring of 1956, Hunt produced his first lithographs, which included Prometheus, an impression of which has recently been acquired by the British Museum (above). The print is a direct response to the lynching of Emmett Till, the cri de cœur of a young Black artist who had been among the thousands who viewed his open casket in Chicago and remained haunted by a photograph of Till's mutilated body that he had seen in Jet, a magazine aimed at the African American community.

As a metaphor for Till's suffering, Hunt uses the Greek myth of Prometheus, who brought civilisation to humans by stealing fire from the gods. Condemned by Zeus to eternal suffering, Prometheus was bound to a rock and his liver was eaten daily by an eagle (a representation of Zeus), before growing back overnight...

In Hunt's lithograph, Prometheus is depicted as an emaciated, almost decomposed figure, bound across the chest, with his arms outstretched and a face so damaged it is barely recognisable as human. The eagle, composed of semi-abstract lines and rapid brushstrokes, swoops down from above, its razor-sharp beak pointed toward the figure's liver. Hunt printed this ambitious and powerful lithograph himself rather than working with a master printer, as artists untrained in printmaking often do. He produced just seven impressions, only two of which are in museum collections: the impression at the British Museum and another at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In the same year he also made Hero's Head, a sculpture of Till's deformed face in welded steel.

Source: Read the full article from the British Museum

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