An objective study of the work of native american sculptor jimmie durham
Jimmie Durham was born in 1940 in Arkansas to a Cherokee family. There is not much documentation done on his childhood. Durham had his first solo exhibition in at the University of Texas, Austin in 1966. From 1968 to 1972 he studied for a degree in sculpture in Geneva at the Ecole des Beaux. He returned to the United States in 1973 to join the American Indian Movement as a political organizer. Over the same period he also served as a director of the International Indian Treaty council and Representative of the United Nations (Lippard 1993).
In the late seventies and early eighties, Durham who is also a poet and essayist focused his energy on writing and in 1983 West End Press published a volume of his poems titled ‘Columbus Day’. Between 1981 and 1982 he was the director of the foundation for the community of artists in New York. For a time, he lived in Cuernavaca, Mexico. He is now settled in Berlin, Germany (Lippard 1993).
Durham has had several exhibitions throughout his career as an artist. He has had an exhibition at the Whitney Biennial in new York, the Documenta IX, the ICA in London, the museum of Contemporary Art in Antwerp and the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels.
Durham’s application of media is greatly versatile. He manipulates whatever material he gets his hands on to convey, clearly the message he wants to put across. He has used glass, stone, tree branches, mirrors, old car parts, laminate flooring, and PVC among other things (Lippard 1993).
His work can be roughly classified into five categories that run into each other. There are the animal skulls that are symbolic of the past, and then there are his works that at first glance look like a random assembly of everyday things such as PVC, broken glass, clothe and even a toothbrush which have captions on them that annotate the every day life of American Indians. These are usually a satirical protest of how Indians are viewed as easy prey for historic displays (Lippard 1993).
The third aspect of his work closely interlinked with the former, featuring inscriptions that relate the work on display, even though the two might be in conflict. The fourth category of Durham’s work is his almost abstract sculptures. The last category is his impermanent indoor or outdoor installations which tend to blur into his writings.
In his work Durham applies a lot of symbolism. He uses subtle irony to get his message of deep resentment he feels for the classification of American Indians into a particular category that is labeled and left at that. His objective is to pull down the stereotypes put up by western culture (Roberta, 1993).
The two pivots of his work are anthropology and colonialism. In his exhibition of 1988 in orchard Gallery, Derry in Northern Ireland he worked to draw the parallels between the colonization of the Irish and the Native Americans. The center piece for his exhibition was a totem pole with a Celtic cross engraved on it that had been carved from a yew tree. He then hang found objects form the pole such as rearview mirrors and a home made surveillance camera (Lippard 1993).
A theme that clearly comes out in Durham’s work is how much he disagrees with the Western presentation of Native American Heritage. Though Durham’s message has remained primarily the same that of advocating for the native American people and dishing out subtle mockery of continued colonization of them, since 1994 his focus has shifted to the relationship between architecture, monumentality and national narratives. What he seeks to do is free architecture from how it is viewed as being lofty and above other works of art since. In an interview with a representative to ‘The Guide to Contemporary Art in Italy’ he used an apt analogy. He talked of how, if one builds a simple house, it has purity of form. But if other structures are added around the house, as humans will tend to do, it becomes a place and the house loses identity (Facts and Fiction)
I would like to draw a comparison between Durham and Gober because the similarities and disparities between their work is startling. Gober was born in 1954 in Wallingford, Connecticut but is now based in New York. Like Durham, Gober’s sculptures are object that one encounters every day such as doors, sinks, and legs. They may at times look unsophisticated but Gober pays great attention to detail.
Though they may seem to create the same forms of art to some extent by making art from the mundane, their reasons for doing so is vastly different. Gober’s major themes tend towards nature, sexuality, religion and politics while Durham’s theme is liberalization. They both work to promote cultures that are at polar opposites of each other. Gober leans towards ‘Americanism’ presenting American culture as he sees is best to do so and with things that can be identified as being American. Durham works to define his roots and to portray the culture of his people that of Native Americans in a different light.
Durham’s take on his own work is interesting to note. In his own words, Durham says that his aim is to ‘create art that is free of metaphor, that hasn’t got descriptive metaphorical architectural weight to it”. He says also that he sees himself as a social artist not a studio artist. By this he means that his work is not inspired by the urge to display but rather it is determined by whatever social issue he feels there is need to address, so that he can feel ‘connected to whatever society is doing (Facts and Fiction).
I believe that Durham’s work is effective at getting his message of his roots and how his culture is misrepresented and misunderstood across. Taking an example of his exhibition titled ‘building a nation’ that was exhibited in Matt’s Gallery in 2006, where he takes firm stand against what he terms ‘racism’ against Native Americans. His use of ordinary objects in my opinion is a piece of brilliance. He is a spokesperson for his people and other minor oppressed cultures all over the world.
In conclusion, I can say that Durham’s work plays an important role on the art scene today. It is as if he is recording the history of Native Americans in a form that will remain indelible thus available for future generations. The lessons he teaches through his works are important to all of humanity since we can never stand to judge and classify a people and limit them by our own understanding of who and what they are. Though his work may be difficult to grasp at times, he uses his art to bring out emotions that words simply cannot capture.
Facts and Fiction (undated). Jimmie Durham. Retrieved on July 11, 2008 from http://www.undo.net/cgi-bin/openframe.pl?x=/Pinto/gene4/durham_eng.htm
Lippard, R.L (Feb, 1993 ). Jimmie Durham: postmodernist “savage.” – Native American artist Art in America. Retrieved on July 11, 2008 from
Roberta S (5 March 1993,). At the Whitney, a biennial with a social conscience. The New York Times. p. C1, C27. Retrieved on July 11, 2008 from http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html