Sculptor and poet Jimmie Durham, who parodied and challenged Native American stereotypes in his work even as the question of his ancestors sparked criticism and controversy, died on November 17 in Berlin at the age of eighty-one. . The news was confirmed by the Kurimanzutto gallery, based in Mexico City, which represents the artist. Durham received in 2019 the prestigious Golden Lion of the Venice Biennale for all his achievements. “We should probably offer him two lifetime achievements at this point,” noted Biennale curator Ralph Rugoff. “Durham has continued to find ingenious and compelling new ways to approach the political and social forces that have shaped the world we live in. At the same time, his contributions to the art field have been remarkable for their formal and conceptual originality, their nimble mix of dissonant parts and alternate perspectives, and their irrepressible playfulness. His work moves us and delights us in a way that can never be anticipated.
Born in Houston in 1940, Durham lived a traveling childhood, moving from Texas to Louisiana to Oklahoma with his family as his father looked for work. As a young man, in the 1960s he was drawn to the civil rights movement, his interest led him to become active in theater, performance and literature. Moving to Austin in 1965, he worked at the University of Texas and received his first solo exhibition that same year. Four years later, he moved to Geneva to join the School of Fine Arts. Upon his return to the United States in 1973, he joined the American Indian Movement (AIM), for which he began working as a political organizer. Soon after, he joined the International Indian Treaty Council, of which he eventually became the chief administrator. In 1979, he left the two indigenous organizations due to disputes over AIM’s support in Cuba. Durham then moved to New York City, where he began creating the sculptures for which he became widely known, typically combining found objects, natural materials, and text in order to challenge white Western prejudices about Indigenous peoples. After a productive stint in Mexico in the late 1980s and early 1990s, in which he published a collection of poems, Columbus Day (1985) and the collection of essays A certain lack of consistency (1993), Durham returned to Europe in 1994, where he has lived ever since.
During his life Durham has variously claimed and denied Native American heritage, most often cited as saying he was a Cherokee quarterback. In 2017 ‘three Cherokee tribes recognized by the federal government and qualified its claim to indigenous heritage and those made on its behalf on this point by artistic institutions as “harmful because they distort indigenous peoples, undermine tribal sovereignty and trivialize work. important to legitimate Indigenous artists and cultural leaders. In response, Durham stressed that he does not see himself as a representative of any ethnicity. “I am Cherokee,” he said. “But I am not a Cherokee artist or an Indian artist, nor is Brancusi. was a Romanian artist. “
A self-proclaimed “interventionist”, Durham has participated in half a dozen Venice Biennials, two Documentas and three Whitney Biennials. Among the many solo exhibitions of his work were those at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles (2017-18); Serpentine Gallery, London (2015); the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (nbk) (2015); and Portikus, Frankfurt (2010). The retrospectives include those of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Antwerp (2012); the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris (2009); and the Gemeentemuseum, The Hague (2003). He is also the author of several collections of essays and poems.
“It asks us to consider the history of oppression, the futility of violence and the helplessness of our positions in the world, but allows us to contemplate these austere realities while keeping smiles on our faces,” wrote Anne Ellegood of Durham in Art Forum in 2009. “And for this reason, his work is intrinsically hopeful. Life is a bitch, he seems to say, but nevertheless, life is good.