On the heels of the “Scaffold” controversy, Walker Art Center is facing new questions from the American Indian community as it opens a touring retrospective of work by American artist and former American Indian Movement activist Jimmie Durham.
Durham, 76, has long said he is Cherokee. But new research casts doubt on that claim. And the Walker has avoided labeling his ethnicity in promotional materials for the show, organized by the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, where it was presented last winter.
Durham, who declined to be interviewed for this story, employs symbols typically used in Native American art but has resisted being called an “Indian artist.” In a rare interview with the New York Times, he said, “I am perfectly willing to be called Cherokee. But I’m not a Cherokee artist or Indian artist, no more than Brancusi was a Romanian artist.”
He frequently uses found objects and assemblage techniques, piecing them together to form nonlinear narratives through sculpture, and playfully juxtaposing charged materials. In a 1985 work, “I Want 2 Bee Mice Elf,” he positions an animal skull, a tree branch painted yellow, and the side mirror from a vehicle on a totem-like structure.
The sprawling exhibition spans nearly four decades. Much of the work references America’s history of colonialism, reflecting Durham’s leadership in establishing international treaty rights for indigenous peoples. Later pieces deal with headier art-world questions, like divorcing a focus on monumentality from sculpture as a medium, playing with duality in identity, and the complexities of language.
Having lived abroad for more than 20 years, he clearly operates within a Eurocentric art world. While his work may be from a vanguard time, it doesn’t resonate with some native artists in Minnesota and nationally, who say it needs to be reconsidered in light of their contention that he is white, not Cherokee. They also wonder why the Walker did not engage with the native community in deciding nearly three years ago to bring the show here.
Minneapolis-based native artists Dyani White Hawk and Rosy Simas met Tuesday with Walker officials, including executive director Olga Viso and curator Vincenzo de Bellis as well as Hammer senior curator Anne Ellegood.
“We requested the meeting, and they made substantial time for us and seemed to be genuinely listening,” said White Hawk.
The Walker had committed itself to a dialogue with the native community after the controversy a month ago over “Scaffold,” a sculpture modeled in part on the gallows used to hang 38 Dakota men in 1862. That work was dismantled and Dakota elders will meet Sunday in Sisseton, S.D., to determine the next steps.
His first U.S. retrospective
Ellegood, who organized the show, sees Durham’s work as part of a sculptural tradition that includes such artists as David Hammons. Durham’s first-ever U.S. retrospective, it will travel to the Whitney in New York in November.
Her goal was “to bring him back in and think about his work in the context of history of American art and more specifically sculpture — because that is his primary medium — but also around issues about the relationship between art and activism, the political efficacy of artworks in certain situations, his activity within a moment of multiculturalism and so-called identity politics.”
As for his heritage, she said, “Jimmie understands himself to be of Cherokee descent. ... As a curator working closely with an artist, I honored his self-identification. It is in his work. It is in much of his writing. It’s something that has always been part of how he thinks about what he is doing.”
However, genealogical research by America Meredith, a Cherokee artist and editor based in Santa Fe, N.M., found no native ancestors in his family tree. She also notes that the tribe, not a curator working with an artist, has authority over identity. And Durham is not registered with any of the three Cherokee tribes. In fact, he has criticized the registration process, labeling it as a “tool of apartheid.”
Some wonder whether he may have repeated what could be a family myth. Think of the controversy over Sen. Elizabeth Warren, whose claims of being Cherokee were debunked as a family story passed down for generations.
“For many people, ‘Cherokee’ is this generic placeholder you use when you think you are Indian or don’t know what tribe you are,” said Meredith.
Questions of heritage have dogged Durham for years, but the exhibition catalog published by the Hammer Museum “is basically a pro-‘Durham is Cherokee’ text,” said Ashley Holland, an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation and former assistant curator of native art at the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis. “This puts the Walker in a difficult place. The exhibition isn’t their creation, and most likely the associated labels and printed materials were not their production.
“I understand the pragmatic aspects of presenting an exhibition, the financial implications, contractual obligations. The Hammer Museum set the tone with how they chose to present Durham. The Walker now has the opportunity to finally change the dialogue.”
Museum as ‘contested site’
Jolene Rickard, who runs the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program in Cornell University’s art department, sees value in Durham’s work, regardless of whether he is Cherokee.
“He is deeply invested in understanding indigenous history as well as issues,” said Rickard, who is Tuscarora. “I think the issue for people at the Walker is that their community got up in arms, and they need to have a better relationship with the indigenous community. But to suggest that Jimmie doesn’t deserve this opportunity is inappropriate.
“He’s trying to represent the condition of America’s inability to understand its ongoing colonialism, so that’s an important thing. How many artists are really dealing with that, right? Here the Walker is trying to take it up, but it’s complex and I like the fact that, yay, a museum is a contested site.”
After the Walker’s meeting with Simas and White Hawk, curator De Bellis said: “The Walker does not ask anyone to prove his or her identity. At the same time, we are also open to and respect others’ positions. ... Among the topics discussed was the idea of creating a platform for discussion around identity and American history. Everyone at the meeting agreed that the show, whatever the positions are, is an opportunity for learning and understanding.”
As part of the exhibition, two Native American artists, Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds and Shanna Ketchum-Heap of Birds, will discuss Durham’s art and activism during a talk at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Walker.
Those who question Durham’s identity say their greater concern is that people who have lived native experiences get to tell their story.
“I do think this younger generation wants to hear from indigenous peoples that are — in our language we would say, ‘a little bit closer to the fire,’ people who are more invested in their own communities or in an indigenous community,” said Rickard. “And so, if anything that’s the thing we have to observe about Jimmie: He has been away for a long time, his community is a very select and, one might argue, privileged or elite group of intellectuals and scholars. So people in our community say, ‘Hey, if you are going to speak for us, you’ve got to at least talk to us.’ ”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Minneapolis artist Dyani White Hawk, who is of Lakota and European ancestry:
“If Jimmie was able to make a statement about who his family is, about where his lineage is, about where it comes from, who those family members are that he has been told are Cherokee relatives, we would all love to hear about it. And until he is able to or willing to do that, the speculation will continue and the research done will back up that speculation and then we are forced to respond to a seemingly non-Native man representing us at the highest forms of art world representation. And that’s hurtful and harmful to those of us who are Native, who are members of our tribes that are putting in the good hard work to get our voices seen and represented in the field. So, that’s why it is such an important story or such an important thing to talk about — we have an opportunity now on this platform to flip the attention to people that have lived experience as Native people. And I hope that’s what happens with this.”