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.Read More
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.