Cherokee Artist Jimmie Durham: Not Cherokee

Sculpture by Jimmie Durham, Museu de Serralves, Portugal
Sculpture by Jimmie Durham, Museu de Serralves, Portugal via Wikimedia

When I go look at art, I don’t read the descriptive text until I’ve decided the work merits my attention. The creations have got to stand on their own (in my subjective assessment) before I spend any time learning about the artist.

That’s why I missed the footnote about Jimmie Durham. The artist, who has a retrospective at the Walker Art Center, identifies as Cherokee. On the wall of the gallery there’s short paragraph below the introduction to the exhibit:

Note: While Durham self-identifies as Cherokee, he is not recognized by any of the three Cherokee Nations, which as sovereign nations determine their own citizenship. We recognize that there are Cherokee artists and scholars who reject Durham’s claims of Cherokee ancestry.

Talk about burying the lede.

The gallery footnote absolutely shifted my perception of the work. I found it all  appealing on first blush, but the truth of his identity made his claim to be Cherokee feel like a self-granted license to appropriate  — and it greatly undermined my appreciation of the work. I’d have called it wry and well constructed but upon further research into the artist’s background, it all felt stolen.

On ArtNet, Swedish-Cherokee America Meredith explains Why It Matters that Jimmie Durham is Not a Cherokee. The medium read tackles why it’s not enough to focus on covering Native American artists.

Clearly exasperated with the recent flurries of online discussion about Sam Durant’s Scaffold (2012) and now about Jimmie Durham’s retrospective at the Walker Art Center, the Zuni-Navajo artist Demian DinéYazhi recently posted a request on Facebook: “Every time you post about Sam Durant or Jimmie Durham, how about you follow it up by posting about an Indigenous artist who deserves the same energy and signal boost?”

Every day I post and write about Native artists. That’s my job, and something I love doing since there are so many compelling Native artists whom the world should know about. But the ignore-him-and-he’ll-go-away approach has not worked or done anything to stanch the steady flow of articles, essays, and books positioning Jimmie Durham not just as a Native American, but the Native artist that the rest of us would do well to emulate.

In January, Los Angeles’s Hammer Museum launched an ambitious traveling retrospective, “Jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World,” which just opened at the Walker and will continue to the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Remai Modern. I waited and hoped for someone else to voice a protest, but finally James Luna (Luiseño), Nancy Mithlo (Chiricahua Apache), and myself all realized we had to speak up.

The Whitney Museum was recently the center of a protest about the work of painter Dana Schultz when the museum chose to exhibit a painting of Emmet Till. The artist, who is white, claimed license to paint Till — a black teenager who was lynched in Mississippi — as a figure that represents the pain of all mothers who have lost a child.  Black families, artists, and activists begged to differ.

Durham’s retrospective is scheduled to go the Whitney next.

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