In 1986 the artist Jimmie Durham, who had died aged 81, lay down on a large sheet of canvas and asked his partner to score the shape of his body. To this outline he attached a crudely chiselled mask apparently depicting his own face, complete with synthetic hair, feathers, and shells for ears. On the canvas he scrawled in thick, handwritten capitals, curling over the right shoulder: “Hello I’m Jimmie Durham, I want to explain a few basic things about myself.” On other parts the artist wrote: “My skin is not really this dark, but I am sure many Indians have coppery skin.” Written near the yellow-and-red cast phallus flopping between the legs of Self-Portrait, one of Durham’s best-known works, is “Indian penises are extremely large and colourful.”
The sculpture prefigured what would become an enduring controversy and mystery – whether Durham was of Cherokee descent or not. When his touring retrospective At the Center of the World opened at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, in 2017, an editorial in Indian Country Today complained: “No matter what metric is used to determine Indigenous status, Durham does not fulfil any of them. Jimmie Durham is not a Cherokee in any legal or cultural sense.” While Durham had previously spoken of his Native American heritage, he also dismissed tribal enrolment as a “tool of apartheid”. Elsewhere he said: “I’ve been accused of not being part of any Indian community. It’s certainly a correct accusation. I’m not, don’t want to be.”
In the 1970s, before finding fame as an artist, Durham was the UN representative for Indians of the Americas, an umbrella group for organisations including the Shuar Confederation of Ecuador, the Mapuche Confederation of Chile, and various North American indigenous groups. There he helped establish a working group on indigenous populations. In 1973 he protested against the poor treatment of American indigenous populations at the Wounded Knee Occupation, a standoff between activists from the American Indian Movement (AIM), some armed, and the police.
Much of his artwork over the ensuing decades played on facets, motifs and cliches of North American indigeneity. Pocahontas’ Underwear (1985), a pair of red knickers with feathers, shells and beads attached, was critical of the fetishisation of Native American imagery. Tlunh Datsi (1984) drew attention to the oppression of Native Americans by attaching a puma skull decorated with feathers and beads to a police barricade. In a later series of sculptures, he attached further animal skulls and horns to assemblages of furniture in body-like arrangements that he referred to as “animal spirits”.
When Durham was awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 2019, the curator Ralph Rugoff praised him for “art that is at once critical, humorous and profoundly humanistic”, work that a critic had dismissed two years earlier as “cartoonishly crude pseudo-Indian artefacts”.
Jimmie was born in Houston, Texas, to Ethel (nee Simmons) and Jerry Durham. As Jerry, an oil industry worker, searched for construction jobs, the family moved around rural Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. In early interviews Durham claimed to have been born to the Wolf Clan in Nevada County, Arkansas. Aged 16 he left home, taking ranching jobs across the American south, and became a member of the Native American Church (known for its sacramental use of peyote).
He joined the US navy aged 19 and, while stationed at a nuclear facility in Nevada, he started to write poetry – he later published two collections. On discharge he returned to Houston and met the African American playwright Vivian Ayers. With Muhammad Ali on the same bill reciting his own poetry, under Ayers’s guidance Durham took part in an event at the Arena theatre in 1963, reading texts by well-known Native American leaders. Turning to sculpture, he had his first exhibition in 1967 at the University of Texas, where he met some Swiss students who encouraged him to travel to Geneva, and in 1969 he enrolled at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts there.
He returned to the US in 1973. “All Indians in the US had to respond to a situation on an Indian reservation,” he said of the 71-day siege of Wounded Knee. “I didn’t go to the US. I think I went against the US.” He joined AIM and a year later he became director of its International Indian Treaty Council, setting up offices in New York and Geneva. Yet by the turn of the decade, internal bickering and resistance from the political establishment led Durham to focus his attention back on art.
Living in New York, he had solo shows at 22 Wooster Gallery and the Alternative Museum, both countercultural spaces, in 1985 and developed his performance work, which combined poetry and chanting, as well as readings and singing in multiple European languages. In 1987 he moved to Cuernavaca, Mexico, with his partner Maria Thereza Alves, a Brazilian activist and artist.
In 1988 he had an exhibition at the fledgling Matt’s Gallery in London and in 1992 was invited to take part in Documenta in Kassel (he took part again in 2012 and his work will be included in the 2022 edition too). He exhibited at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, and the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London. These last European outings followed the cancellation of exhibitions at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe and American Indian Contemporary Arts, San Francisco, a year after the introduction of the 1990 Indian Arts and Crafts Act, a law that regulates what work can be described an Native American.
In 1994 Durham moved to Europe, living mainly in Berlin and in Naples, where he took over a former 12th-century convent for a studio. Europeans were less interested in the questions over his identity and he showed regularly, including at five editions of the Venice Biennale from 1999 onwards. He became increasingly ambivalent about his heritage, saying: “I am more willing to have no definition these days. I feel that I want to be confused in a certain way. I want to continually interrupt my own sentences, continually interrupt my own narratives and my own definitions.”
In 2015 he showed at the Serpentine Galleries, London. Detractors resurfaced two years later as his 2017 retrospective travelled to the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, the Whitney in New York and Remai Modern in Saskatoon, Canada. The Indian Country Today editorial sparked further press speculation, leading the American institutions to issue carefully worded statements and disclaimers acknowledging the “complexity” of the issue and urging visitors to “reach their conclusions”.
Durham is survived by Alves.