New York

Jimmie Durham

Nicole Klagsbrun

Jimmie Durham is a liberating presence in the somewhat constricted moment of multicultural criticism, when, as Edward Said has warned in Culture and Imperialism, 1992, nativism, or an insistence on one’s own ethnicity as a kind of absolute, is in the ascendant. The post-Modern acknowledgement of and respect for cultural and ethnic difference has mutated into a fetishization of selfhood or what Freud called the narcissism of small differences. As identity politics turns bloody in Bosnia, India, and Ireland, difference is running amok. We seem to be entering that grim stage of the world cycle described by Empedocles as the absolute ascendancy of difference, which he dubbed the Age of Hate. Countless cultural and ethnic groups feel that their social and cultural issues are theirs alone to comment on, make art about, or otherwise engage. The world is in danger of becoming a Tower of Babel in which all the doors of all the rooms are barricaded and all the phones are off the hook.

Durham, a Native American of Cherokee lineage, refuses to cooperate with this fetishization of difference: he has gone to Derry in Northern Ireland and presented pieces that deal with Irish issues; he has made works that critique that icon of white culture, William Shakespeare; he has refused to register as a tribal Cherokee. While his work remains fundamentally tied to his heritage, it never casts itself as specifically “Native American.”

His recent show comprised three groups of works. One consisted of a variety of sculptures that extended his project of creating Native American–based work, such as his serpentlike forms in plastic tubing, using modern industrial materials. A second group included drawings and paintings dealing with the bodily shame characteristic of a colonized psychology, especially his often humorous concern about the appearance of his nose.

The third group was made up of clumsily handwritten sheets that present themselves as entries from the “Diary of Caliban.” These works echo Franz Fanon’s objection to Dominique Mannoni’s claim (in his book, Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of Colonization, 1964) that colonized peoples invite colonization through their “Dependency Complex”—supposedly the feeling Caliban has in The Tempest when he is overpowered by that representative of Western civilization, Prospero. Durham’s junior high school–like diary entries simultaneously embody, parody, and critique the colonized native’s self-loathing, his sense of himself as monstrous—a feeling produced by his incorporation of the contempt and revulsion of the colonial overlord. Some of these works are incredibly witty and poignant. Like all of Durham’s work, they are a powerful statement of sanity, neither rejecting nor accepting the native nor the other without reflection.

Thomas McEvilley