Jimmie Durham was an American-born sculptor and essayist who worked across sculpture, performance, and installation.Read More
Born in Houston, Durham spent his childhood in Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. He engaged with political activism from early on, becoming active in the civil rights movement of the 1960s and working with poet and cultural activist Vivian Allan in theatre.
In 1965, Durham took a job as a mechanic at the University of Texas, where he befriended a student from Switzerland. The friendship led him to travel to Geneva and ultimately enrol at the city's L'École des Beaux-Arts in 1969.
Jimmie Durham's artworks often examine contemporary concerns including western hegemony and the historical and contemporary oppression of minorities. In particular he is recognised for his sculptural constructions of animal skulls and found objects that evoke Native American iconography and confront persisting Native American stereotypes.
The 1970s was a politically active period for Durham. In 1973, Durham returned to the U.S. and began working as an organiser for the American Indian Movement. By 1975, he was a member of the movement's Central Council and the executive director of the International Indian Treaty Council, as well as the representative of American Indians to the United Nations. In 1979, Durham resigned from the Council over disagreements and decided to commit more time to art, although he remained concerned with Native American issues.
Durham's claims to a Native American identity have at times been disputed. In 2017, an open letter by author and academic Steve Russell stated that Durham was not enrolled in any of the three Cherokee Nations. While the artist often described himself as Cherokee, he refused to be considered within the category of 'Native artist', once stating, 'I am not "Native American," nor do I feel that "America" has any right to either name me or un-name me.'
In 1980, then living in New York City, Durham began combining various materials, objects, and text to create sculptural assemblages that address the historical and contemporary conditions of Native American life. A puma skull wearing a feathered headdress appears mounted on a blue barricade painted with flowers and the words 'POLICE DEPT' in Tlunh Datsi (1984). The work, whose title refers to the Cherokee word for 'panther', has been regarded as referencing the oppression of Native Americans in the U.S.
Durham also merged reality and fiction in his work by drawing upon the complex and ambiguous definitions of authenticity and identity. The full-length assemblage Self-Portrait (1986), made by tracing and cutting the outline of his body on canvas, features handwritten notes that oscillate between a first- and third-person perspective, and between factual and fabricated details about the artist.
Durham increasingly grew dissatisfied with the commercialisation of art in New York, as well as the insistent perception of his work as being 'Native American', leaving for Mexico in 1987 then for Europe in 1994. In Europe, the artist interrogated the history of western art at large, creating works that subvert the practices of well-known modernists and contemporary artists. Anti-Brancusi (2005), for example, mocks the work of modernist sculptor Constantin Brancusi through a stack of cardboard boxes—including one for a urinal—on top of which sits a rock in an elongated shape.
Durham continued to employ animal skulls, contrasting their organic origins with artificial objects. In Eurasian Lynx, a lynx skull is attached to a web-like structure of wire, metal, and Murano glass, while a European stag skull obtains a surrogate body of steel pipes in Red Deer (both 2017). Durham's skull sculptures were included in the 58th Venice Biennale, where he received the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement.
Durham was also a prolific essayist and poet, writing for art magazines and journals such as Artform, Art Journal, and Third Text. He also published Columbus Day (1985), a book of poetry, and the anthology A Certain Lack of Coherence: Writings on Art and Cultural Politics (1993).
Exhibiting internationally since the 1980s, Jimmie Durham also participated regularly in numerous international art festivals including Documenta, the Venice Biennale, the Sydney Biennale, and the Sharjah Biennial.
In 2017, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles presented a major retrospective exhibition of Durham's work, titled Jimmie Durham: At the Centre of the World, that later travelled to the Walker Art Centre in Minneapolis and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
Recent solo exhibitions of Durham's work include Did you say I am Lying? (Acha que minto?), Fidelidade Arte, Lisbon (2019); The Middle Earth (with Maria Thereza Alves), Institut d'Art Contemporain, Villeurbanne/Rhône-Alpes (2018); Jimmie Durham: God's Children, God's Poem, Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Zurich (2017); Jimmie Durham: Sound and Silliness, The National Museum of XXI Century Arts (MAXXI), Rome (2016); A Machine Needs Instructions as a Garden Needs Discipline, Museum of Contemporary Art Vigo, Spain (2013).
Select group exhibitions include Sleepless. The bed in history and contemporary art, Belvedere 21. Museum of Contemporary Art, Vienna (2021); Hospitalités, Barbara Wien, Berlin (2020); Yorkshire Sculpture International, The Hepworth Wakefield (2019); Recollection — A Journey After 28 Years, Proyectos Monclova, Mexico City (2018); Soil and Stones, Souls and Songs, Para Site, Hong Kong and Jim Thompson Art Center, Bangkok (2017); Punk. Sus rastros en el arte contemporáneo, Museo Universitario del Chopo, Mexico City (2016); Surrealism: The Conjured Life, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (2015).
Sherry Paik | Ocula | 2021