Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism.
MINNEAPOLIS — The traveling retrospective Jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World opened last week at the Walker Art Center. It is a massive exhibition, with nearly 150 works dating from 1970 to the present, and accompanied by a 320-page catalogue. That a solo exhibition of this size and scope would be devoted to an artist who has claimed Native American heritage is noteworthy, especially given how little space is usually given to Native artists in mainstream museums. The only problem is that Durham isn’t a member of any Native American tribe; available information and the statements he has made about his origins leave much room for doubt and debate about his Native ancestry.
Organized by the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, At the Center of the World was curated by the Hammer’s senior curator, Anne Ellegood, with curatorial assistant MacKenzie Stevens. After its run at the Walker Art Center — where it was coordinated by curator Vincenzo de Bellis, with Misa Jeffereis — it will travel to the Whitney Museum in New York and then the new Remai Modern in Saskatoon, Canada.
In an interview published in Interventions and Provocations: Conversations on Art, Culture, and Resistance (1998), Durham told Susan Canning that he grew up in a household that spoke Cherokee in the home. According to Lucy Lippard’s glowing piece about him, “Postmodernist ‘Savage’” (1993) in Art in America, as a teen he “became a member of the Native American Church, best known for its once-legal use of peyote.” Mary Modeen wrote that Durham is one quarter Cherokee. His bio, originally posted on the Hammer’s website and now gone (though available on archived versions of press materials), states that he is “a Native American of Cherokee descent.”
However, Durham has also said that he is not Cherokee. Following the appearance of Lippard’s “Postmodernist ‘Savage’” in 1993, he wrote a letter to the magazine, which it published, where he wrote: “I am not Cherokee. I am not an American Indian. This is in concurrence with recent US legislation, because I am not enrolled on any reservation or in any American Indian community.”
The Indian Arts and Crafts Act
The “recent US legislation” Durham was referring to was the Indian Arts and Crafts Act (IACA), passed in 1990, which makes it illegal to sell art if you falsely claim to be American Indian, Native American, or a member of any federally recognized tribe. “It’s essentially a truth in advertising law,” Bree Black Horse, an attorney who specializes in Indian law, told Hyperallergic.
Even if Durham’s claims to Cherokee heritage are true, he can’t legally sell his work in the United States, explains Black Horse, because he’s not a tribal member. The works exhibited as part of At the Center of the World aren’t for sale, “so technically doesn’t run afoul of the law, but it definitely violates the spirit of the law,” Black Horse says.
In a 1993 article, Jonathan Tilove of the Newhouse News Service, wrote that following the passage of the IACA, two galleries in Santa Fe and San Francisco canceled Durham shows. Following those events, Geoffrey Stamm, assistant general manager of the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, “warned that when enforcement begins, ‘if Jimmie Durham is selling art work as a Cherokee and he does not have certification from the tribe, he will be arrested,’” Tilove wrote. “Durham apparently took the threat seriously. He has since written Art in America citing the law and declaring, ‘I am not an American Indian.’”
Durham has also not lived in the United States for 30 years — first settling in Cuernavaca, Mexico beginning in 1987 and then in Europe since 1994 — and has stopped making art about Native identity. However, At the Center of the World prominently features his earlier works, complete with Native imagery, works that use the Cherokee language, works that reference Cherokee history, and works that imply the artist’s Native identity.
To give an example, one of the first works you see as you enter the show is a sculptural self-portrait of the artist from 1986. It’s a canvas outline of Durham’s body, painted in a shade of brown. “My skin is not really this dark,” he has written on one of the legs, “but I am sure that many Indians have coppery skin.” One of the sculpture’s only three-dimensional elements is the male anatomy, painted yellow and orange, which is flanked with the words “Indian penises are unusually large and colorful.”
As part of programming for the show, the Walker invited Chayenne Arapaho artist Hock E Aye VI Edgar Heap of Birds and Navajo contemporary Native arts scholar Shanna Heap of Birds to speak last week about their own work in the field. During the question and answer session, Shanna Heap of Birds responded to a question about Durham’s Native identity that she had only recently learned of the controversy.
“When I think about Durham’s work — the 40 plus years that he put into it and also looking at the impact that he had on various discourses — like Jean Fisher I think that art is not reducible to identity,” she said. “It has to be seen, like [Fisher] said, as a material realization, as a philosophical act, how you live your life.” As a Navajo woman herself, Heap of Birds said she didn’t feel she had the right to tell someone whether they are Native American or not. She added: “Because that’s their experience. It’s not my business. I know who I am.”
Durham’s supporters cite the fact that the artist has never sought Cherokee citizenship as a reason why it’s acceptable for him to say he’s Cherokee without actually being a member of a tribe. His refusal to seek citizenship is seen as an an act of defiance toward established systems for categorizing and confirming Native American identity. “Blood quantum is a bunch of racist nonsense,” Durham said in a 2002 article by Daniel Grant. “Saying you are Indian or not sounds good, but it also makes people choose one ancestry over another. I don’t see urban Indians as second class citizens, or reserve Indians as the epitome of all that is truly red.”
But curator and Anishinaabe poet Heid E. Erdrich, of Minneapolis, argues that you can’t reject something of which you were never a part. “He frames his lack of status as some sort of rejection,” Erdrich told Hyperallergic. “For us, it’s a rejection of Native sovereignty, which we’re bound to uphold as citizens and descendants of our nations.”
“A tribal nation gets to self-determine who is citizen and who isn’t, and that’s the law. That’s our law,” said Seneca choreographer and curator Rosy Simas, who, along with Erdrich and a group of other Native artists and curators, has been meeting with the Walker to try to make changes to the exhibition. “So when someone decides to say, ‘Oh, I’m Cherokee and I don’t care what other Cherokee people say or the Cherokee Nation says,’ or, ‘My lineage doesn’t show that I’m Cherokee but I’m going to say that I’m Cherokee,’ it’s completely disrespecting the sovereignty of that nation.”
Lippard wrote that Durham was born into the Wolf Clan in 1940, in Nevada County, Arkansas. Meanwhile, in a recent issue of Flash Art, Jennifer Piejko wrote that he was born in Washington, Arkansas, which is in Hempstead County. “His family inhabited a Cherokee reservation for over a century, following the Indian Removal Act of 1830,” Piejko wrote.
However, there is no birth record of the surname Durham for 1940 in Nevada County or Hempstead County, according to America Meredith, a Swedish-Cherokee writer and scholar, and editor of First American Art Magazine. “Durham was careful to never mention a family member’s name or list his birth date, but MacKenzie Stevens’s Selected Chronology in the At the Center of the World catalogue listed his birthday as July 10, 1940,” Meredith said in an email.
Kathy Griffin White, a Cherokee genealogist, did find record of a Jimmie Bob Durham’s birth in Harris, Texas in 1940, from the Texas Department of Health. The information White found suggests “he is not telling the truth about his birth,” she said in an email.
Meanwhile, Meredith and White point to a page on findagrave.com, a crowd-sourced website, that features a photo of Durham’s parents, Jerry Loren Durham and Ethel Pauline Simmons Durham. The image of this couple is the same as the one Durham uses, along with the caption “The Indian’s Parents (frontal),” in his piece “The Indian’s Family” (1985) , which is now on view at the Walker. “They had two older daughters and another son, which matches Durham’s descriptions of his family,” Meredith said. “Ethel was born in Shover Springs, Hempstead County, Arkansas, and Jerry was likely born in Sutton, Nevada County, Arkansas.”
The findagrave.com entry lists Willie and Dallie Durham and Alden Fruman Simmons and Minnie Lou Card Simmons as Jimmie Durham’s grandparents. Durham mentions Dallie Harris, who married Willie Durham, in My Book, The East London Coelacanth, Sometimes Called, Troubled Waters; The Story of British Sea-Power, Begins With a Chapter Titled: Metal-Fatigue and Social Politics, published on occasion of his exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 1993. “After 300 years of being Cherokee, she could still do an old-fashioned English fry-up,” Durham wrote of his grandmother, “with Cherokee tomatoes, eggs that came from what is ultimately a Chinese bird, sausages from the Tartars and all.”
According to census records found by White, the parents of Durham’s grandmother, Dallie Harris (1837–1957), were Jerry and Mary Harris. White says there is a John Harris listed on records of Western Cherokee in Arkansas, published in 1828, but Durham’s great-grandfather Jerry Harris was born in Georgia, according to his census records. White adds that the fact Durham’s family members are listed on census records from the 19th century at all is further indication that they were not Cherokee. “The Cherokee were never on a US census until 1900,” she said.
On its website, First American Art Magazine has published extensive resources related to the publication’s research into Durham’s genealogy. Just this week, Meredith and nine other artists and scholars published an open letter denouncing Durham’s claims to Cherokee identity.
Hyperallergic attempted to contact Durham to discuss these issues through his gallery in Europe, Michel Rein, as well as through the Walker Art Center, but received no answer.
Beneath the main introductory wall text for Durham’s retrospective at the Walker, in small print, is a disclaimer. It reads:
While Jimmie Durham self-identifies as Cherokee, he is not recognized by any of the three Cherokee Nations, which as sovereign nations determine their own citizenship. We recognize that there are Cherokee artists and scholars who reject Durham’s claims of Cherokee ancestry.
That disclaimer was added following a meeting between Walker curator Vincenzo de Bellis, director Olga Viso, the Hammer’s senior curator Anne Ellegood, and four Native artists and curators: Heid E. and Louise Erdrich, Dyani White Hawk, and Rosy Simas. The meeting followed an earlier meeting with Simas and White Hawk several months ago, after which some of the publicity language around Durham’s Native identity was eliminated, according to White Hawk.
“I did leave feeling like they were genuinely, actively listening and concerned, and hopefully they will take up some of our requests,” White Hawk said after last week’s four-hour meeting.
According to the Walker’s Public Relations Assistant Director, Meredith Kessler, the disclaimer that now appears beneath the introductory wall text at the start of the exhibition and on a small sign in the museum’s store near the exhibition catalogue, “respects [Durham’s] preference for how he chooses to self-identify.” She added: “We understand that Jimmie Durham has supporters and detractors because of his Cherokee ancestry claim. We respect both points of view and welcome conversation about the complex set of Native sovereignty and identity issues that public response to the exhibition might elicit.”
Durham’s Place in the Canon
White Hawk had hoped the note could have been placed inside each of the catalogues, though right now it just exists as a sign near the books. The note is important, she said, because it will live on after the exhibition closes. “Exhibitions come and go, but that catalogue lives on in the libraries well beyond any of us,” White Hawk said. “I haven’t seen a catalogue of this size by a mainstream institution written about a solo exhibition by a Native artist with this much academic attention.”
Even focusing on the controversy around Durham means there’s less attention paid to other Native artists, says Cherokee scholar Lara Evans, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the Institute of American Indian and Alaska Native Culture. “I wish we were talking about other Cherokee artists,” she told Hyperallergic. “And talking about the controversy is one of the ways that conversation completely gets derailed into talking about issues of authenticity and promoting an artist who probably doesn’t need promoting as a Native artist.” Evans named Shan Goshorn, Jeffrey Gibson, Kade Twist, and Kay WalkingStick as some of the prominent Cherokee artists who don’t get enough attention.
Art historian Nancy Marie Mithlo, who challenged Lippard’s framing of Durham as a native artist way back in 1993 (in a piece recently republished by First American Art), said that not much has changed in the past 24 years. “There is largely a willed ignorance about contemporary Native American identity and issues, especially in the arts world,” she told Hyperallergic.
Gwen Westerman, a Dakota and Cherokee artist, said “ethnic fraud” is not a new problem. Neither is how little attention is paid to Native experts who call out mainstream institutions for mistakes. “When Native artists and curators expose a forgery, they are challenged on their authority,” she told Hyperallergic. “Somehow the theft of Native identity is trivialized, and as Native artists and curators we must speak out and keep speaking out about artists like Jimmie Durham. His work continues to be sold and publicized as the work of a Native artist, and museums are complicit in this fraud when they continue to actively or tacitly promote him that way.”
Westerman sees the dialogue around Durham as an opportunity to change the narrative of the way mainstream institutions interact with Native communities. “It is their responsibility to do better in the future,” she said. “They can begin by admitting that it was a mistake to bring this show here to the heart of Ojibwe and Dakota country.”
For White Hawk, the Walker needs to back up its engagement with the Native communities through action. Referencing last month’s controversy over Sam Durant’s “Scaffold” sculpture — when the artist and the Walker chose to remove the sculpture from the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden due to outcry by Dakota community members over its reference to traumatic events in their history — White Hawk saw that the Walker is capable of making change.
“The ‘Scaffold’ situation was not perfect, but they chose to take action and they didn’t have to do that,” she said. “Hopefully this is a turning point. Hopefully the institutions that are involved in this will become more connected to Native artists, Native scholars, Native writers and professionals, and those connections will be built and hopefully there can be a more longstanding relationship with our communities through this experience.”