Hammer Museum senior curator Anne Ellegood has addressed criticism of the traveling retrospective “Jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World.” The exhibition, which was mounted at the Hammer in Los Angeles before it opened at Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center in June (it opens at the Whitney Museum in New York on November 3), has reignited a decades-long debate over artist Jimmie Durham’s American Indian ancestry.
In the Bulletin to the Alternative Museum published in 1984, Durham wrote, “I am a Cherokee artist who strives to make Cherokee art that is considered just as universal and without limits as the art of any white man.” However, he has also resisted such categorizations. Following Lucy Lippard’s “Postmodernist ‘Savage,’” which appeared in American Art Magazine in 1993, he wrote a letter to the publication stating: “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.”
Durham wrote the letter after President George H. W. Bush signed the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act (IACA) into law in November 1990. The legislation stipulates that a person cannot be called an “Indian artist” if he is not registered as a member of an American Indian tribe. While it was designed to prevent non-natives from profiting off of the sale of indigenous objects and artworks, it doesn’t take into account American Indians who refused to enroll in a tribe for political reasons or who cannot trace their lineage.
Durham’s decision not to register as a member of a tribe and his choice not to publicly reveal documentation about his family history have led to intense public discussion over whether his works should be construed as representative of American Indians. While the artist claims that he is “not an ‘Indian artist,’ in any sense” and maintains that his work is “simply contemporary art,” critics protest that his works, which often feature American Indian iconography and themes, misrepresent Cherokee culture.
On June 26, ten members of the Cherokee nation, including artist American Meredith, the publishing editor of First American Magazine, and artist Kade Twist, who cofounded the group Postcommodity, wrote an editorial for Indian Country Today: “No matter what metric is used to determine Indigenous status, Durham does not fulfill any of them. Jimmie Durham is not a Cherokee in any legal or cultural sense. This not a small matter of paperwork but a fundamental matter of tribal self-determination and self-governance. Durham has no Cherokee relatives; he does not live in or spend time in Cherokee communities; he does not participate in dances and does not belong to a ceremonial ground.”
The letter accuses the artist of appropriating Cherokee language, history, and culture, as well as other tribes’ practices. It continues: “While he has toned down his positioning of himself as the representative of all things American Indian, art writers now do the job for him. When art historians, curators, and critics describe Durham as Cherokee or indigenous, Durham makes no attempt to correct them. The IACA does not apply to the current traveling exhibit, ‘From Center of the World,’ because the artwork is for not sale, but the curators should not need to be legally coerced into seeking the truth; they should do so for scholarly integrity.”
In response to the letter and the widespread criticism that it has generated, Ellegood wrote an article published by Artnet that addresses the controversy.
“To suggest that Durham has positioned ‘himself as the representative of all things American Indian,’ as the letter in Indian Country Today reads, is to deliberately misinterpret, or egregiously misunderstand, a fundamental premise of his work . . . He is not ‘representing’ Indigenous culture in his works, but investigating how American Indian history and culture have been misrepresented by others. A number of works from the 1980s deliberately set out to dismantle stereotypes of American Indians that have been widely accepted and disseminated in American popular culture.” She notes Durham’s involvement in the 1970s as an organizer of the American Indian Movement and director of the International Indian Treaty Council. “The fact that the Indigenous people of the world have the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples stems directly from Durham’s efforts during this period.”
She also discusses Durham’s suspicion of the practice of grouping artists by race, ethnicity, and gender; the Cherokee Nation’s right to not recognize Durham as a Cherokee artist; the artist’s genealogical information; and whether organizing the survey is harmful to other Indian artists. “Given how little Durham’s work has been shown in the US—he has not had a significant solo show in the US since 1995—the argument that support of his work correlates in some way to lack of support for other Native artists seems dubious at best,” Ellegood writes.
Despite the debate that has erupted around the exhibition and lingering questions of Durham’s Cherokee ancestry, Ellegood said the show presents an opportunity for other institutions to engage in and continue the ongoing discourse surrounding issues of identity, representation, and institutional responsibility.