In 1986, artist Jimmie Durham, who died at the age of 81, lies down on a large sheet of canvas and asks his partner to mark the shape of his body. To this outline, he attached a roughly chiseled mask apparently representing his own face, complete with synthetic hair, feathers, and ear shells. On the canvas, he scrawled thick handwritten caps, wrapped over the right shoulder: “Hello, I’m Jimmie Durham, I want to explain a few basic things about myself.” On other parts, the artist wrote, “My skin isn’t really that dark, but I’m sure a lot of Indians have copper skin. Written near the yellow and red phallus falling between the legs of Self-Portrait, one of Durham’s best-known works, is “Indian penises are extremely large and colorful”.
The sculpture foreshadowed what would become an enduring controversy and mystery – whether Durham was of Cherokee origin or not. At the opening of his traveling retrospective At the Center of the World at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, in 2017, a editorial in Indian Country Today complained, “Whatever measure is used to determine Aboriginal status, Durham does not meet any of them. Jimmie Durham is not a Cherokee in the legal or cultural sense. While Durham had previously spoken of his Native American heritage, he also dismissed tribal inscription as a “tool of apartheid”. Elsewhere he said: “I have been accused of not being part of any Indian community. It is certainly a correct accusation. I’m not, I don’t want to be.
In the 1970s, before he rose to fame as an artist, Durham was the UN Representative for the Indians of the Americas, a coordinating group of organizations such as the Shuar Confederation of Ecuador, the Mapuche Confederation of Chile and various indigenous groups in North America. There, he helped establish a task force on indigenous populations. In 1973, he protested the mistreatment of Native American populations at the Wounded Knee Occupation, a standoff between American Indian Movement (AIM) activists, some armed forces, and the police.
Much of his work over the following decades played on facets, patterns, and stereotypes of North American indigeneity. Pocahontas’ Underwear (1985), a red panties with attached feathers, shells and pearls, criticized the fetishization of Native American imagery. Tlunh Datsi (1984) drew attention to Native American oppression by attaching a puma skull decorated with feathers and beads to a police barricade. In a later series of sculptures, he attached other animal skulls and horns to furniture assemblies in body-like arrangements he called “animal spirits.”
When Durham received the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 2019, curator Ralph Rugoff congratulated it on “an art that is at once critical, humorous and deeply humanist”, a work that a critic had described two years earlier as “pseudo-Indian artefacts of” a crude caricature ”.
Jimmie was born in Houston, Texas to Ethel (née Simmons) and Jerry Durham. While Jerry, an oil industry worker, searched for construction jobs, the family moved to rural Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. In early interviews, Durham claimed to be born into the Wolf Clan in Nevada County, Arkansas. At the age of 16, he left home, taking up ranching positions in the southern United States, and joined the Native American Church (known for its sacramental use of peyote).
He joined the United States Navy at the age of 19, and while stationed at a nuclear facility in Nevada began to write poetry – he later published two books. Upon his release, he returned to Houston and met African-American playwright Vivian Ayers. With Muhammad Ali on the same Bill reciting his own poetry, under the direction of Ayers, Durham participated in an event at the Arena Theater in 1963, reading texts by well-known Native American leaders. Turning to sculpture, he made his first exhibition in 1967 at the University of Texas, where he met Swiss students who encouraged him to travel to Geneva, and in 1969 he enrolled at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux. -Arts.
He returned to the United States in 1973. “All Indians in the United States had to react to a situation on an Indian reservation,” he said of the 71-day siege of Wounded Knee. “I haven’t been to the United States. I think I went against the United States. He joined AIM and a year later became director of its International Indian Treaty Council, establishing offices in New York and Geneva. Yet at the turn of the decade, internal wrangling and resistance from the political establishment led Durham to refocus his attention on art.
Living in New York City, he presented solo exhibitions at the 22 Wooster Gallery and the Alternative Museum, two counter-cultural spaces, in 1985 and developed his performance work, which combined poetry and song, as well as readings and songs. in several European languages. In 1987, he moved to Cuernavaca, Mexico, with his partner Maria Thereza Alves, a Brazilian activist and artist.
In 1988 he had an exposure to the young Matt’s gallery in London and in 1992 was invited to participate in Documenta in Kassel (he participated again in 2012 and his work will also be included in the 2022 edition). He exhibits at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels and at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. These latest European releases follow the cancellation of exhibitions at the Center for Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe and the American Indian Contemporary Arts in San Francisco, a year after the introduction of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, a law that regulates which work can be qualified. a native american.
In 1994, Durham moved to Europe, living mainly in Berlin and Naples, where he took over a former 12th century convent as a workshop. Europeans are less interested in questions about his identity and he exhibits regularly, notably at five editions of the Venice Biennale from 1999. He has become more and more ambivalent about his heritage, declaring: “I am more inclined to have no definition these days. I feel like I want to be confused in some way. I want to continually interrupt my own sentences, continually interrupt my own narratives and my own definitions.
In 2015, he shown at the Serpentine Galleries, London. Critics resurfaced two years later as his 2017 retrospective visited the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Whitney in New York, and the Remai Modern in Saskatoon, Canada. The Indian Country Today editorial sparked further speculation in the press, leading US institutions to issue carefully drafted statements and warnings acknowledging the “complexity” of the problem and urging visitors to “draw their conclusions.”
Durham is survived by Alves.