« Jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World » at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

A crowd faces out at the threshold of the exhibition « At the Center of the World », the first major retrospective in North America of Jimmie Durham, presented at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. After the initial surprise that they cause , our eyes scan the accumulation of heterogeneous elements from which these sculptures are composed. Each element has its own individual history while each complete character, both men and animals, personifies historical or mythological figures.

This first accumulation is merely an appetizer, barely preparing us for the abundance of objects, artworks and text in an exhibition which gathers over two hundred artworks by the artist. We do not know which way to turn. Our eyes stop, set off again, responding to all of the visual stimulations of objects and words. It is impossible to see it all, to read it all. We submit. We drift and float around the loosely chronological path set out by Anne Ellegood, the curator of the exhibition.

The dice are cast in this first exhibition room. The army of sculptures welcoming us narrates the world of Jimmie Durham and forces us to confront the elephant in the room, the burning question on everyone’s mind when discovering Jimmie Durham’s work: identity. This installation was due to be presented at the American Indian Contemporary Art Gallery. It was moved to the Luggage Store after the 1990 Indian Arts and Crafts Act was passed, which required artists and galleries selling work they claim is made by American Indians to prove the work is authentic by showing government issued documentation of the artist’s tribal affiliation.

The impact of this Act is explained in the wall text in the gallery:, « Durham has always refused to register, believing that to do so would be to acquiesce to colonial systems intended to authenticate and control indigenous people. He also considers the law to be unfair and inherently flawed because it inevitably punishes the many Native Americans who remain unregistered for a whole variety of reasons, from belonging to a tribe not recognized by the U.S. government to being separated from family by adoption ». If his identity as a Cherokee, central in his works, has been challenged, his involvement for the American Indian Movement in the 1970s is indubitable.

Jimmie Durham navigates his way through the waters of identity politics, an issue addressed during the 1993 Whitney Biennale. This was the first major exhibition survey of contemporary art giving priority to artists then seen as outside the ‘mainstream’, including Jimmie Durham. He identifies as an American Indian while questioning the relevance of this term and affirming his affiliation to the « artistic tribe »: “I am a full-blooded contemporary artist, of the sub-group (or clan) called sculptors. I am not an American Indian, nor have I ever seen or sworn loyalty to India. I am not a Native ‘American,’ nor do I feel that ‘America’ has any right to either name me or un-name me. »

In 1986 Jimmie Durham created the first of a long series of self portraits for an exhibition exploring this genre. Here some are gathered in a dedicated room of the exhibition. This ongoing reflection on self-representation has afforded him another opportunity to question identity and the various influences that define us such as race, gender, ethnicity and cultural heritage. This artwork is an example of his practice of assemblage and was made of various elements including wood, chicken feathers and human and animal bones. His use of text in these works challenges the self portrait genre with humor, questioning the preconception that identity is so clear that it could be written on anyone’s body. His affiliation to the Cherokee is in black and white: « My skin is not really this dark but I am sure that many Indians have coppery skin ».

His use of masks allows him to hide behind representations or objects (Self-Portrait Pretending to Be a Stone Statue of Myself, 2006), and in doing so, Jimmie Durham transforms. He enters other people’s skins, particularly those who are close to him such as his mother or his partner Maria Theresa Alves, as well as artists he admires. He creates a link with these artists, paying tribute to the formal language of sculptors like Alexander Calder or Constantin Brancusi, or to the ideas and the humor of artists like Marcel Duchamp (Self-Portrait pretending to be Rosa Levy, 1994), Robert Filliou (Hommage à Filliou (A Piece of Wood Sculpted by a Dog, Painted by a Human. A Piece of Wood Sculpted by a Machine, Painted by a Human), 2003) and David Hammons.

Jimmie Durham is very involved with the many artists who have accompanied him throughout his career. He showed his commitment to this artistic tribe as Director of the Foundation of the Community of Artists to the New York artistic community; a community he joined after he returned from his studies in Switzerland in 1974. He tells the story of Gabriel Orozco helping him with the installation of one of his exhibitions in New York in one of the many texts, poems and essays gathered in the very rich catalogue that goes with the exhibition. More recently, Anri Sala acted as Indian artist Joe Hill in his video A la poursuite du bonheur (2003), one of the many videos presented in the exhibition.

Jimmie Durham recounts both his history and other stories and uses these to question the official version of history as told by the authorities : « There is no true history, but official history is always silly, is always silly lies. Especially in countries which have this horrible imperial background. If you can poke it a little bit then you feel better ». He uses his wit to turn any official, but misrepresentative, position on historical figures upside down, which immediately directs the viewer to bear witness to these historical manipulations.

The exhibition features a portrait of the Spanish colonizer Cortez next to Malinche, his translator and mother of his child. The sculpture representing Malinche was originally a portrait of the historical figure Pocahontas, largely mythologized in the representation of the American Indian. Both of these women, a century apart, were taken from their families by the colonizers but their « official » historical positions are very different. Pocahontas is often represented as a « civilized savage » while Malinche is considered a traitor who, to some, brought the Aztec empire to its end. Durham later created Cortez to be paired with the portrait of Malinche. Half man, half machine, he represents the violence caused by the modernization imposed by colonization.

Both the official accounts of history and the worldview of a sleeping majority are given a multilingual tongue-lashing by Jimmie Durham. Anne Ellegood uses a quote to this effect from 1987 in her essay « Jimmie Durham:Post-American »: « Whenever you folks think about the world, you assume yourselves to be not only at the centre but the standard also, which makes it a little difficult to carry on a conversation with you ». Through his series of sculptures, Jimmie Durham shakes up the self centered vision of the world, realigning its center to wherever he happens to be. These wooden sticks could be planted, just as if they were colonizers’ flags on conquered territories, while a the viewer is bought into the work by the use of the mirror. Jimmie Durham’s unique and humorous works disrupt the world as we are told it is. It was both timely and necessary to see a major retrospective of his work in the United States.

Anna Milone

« Jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World » – Until 7 May 2017 – Hammer Museum – 10899 Wilshire Blvd. – Los Angeles, CA 90024.

Images copyright the artist

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