Jimmie Durham was born in 1940 in the US.
In 1963 Durham’s strong interest in the civil rights movement led him into performance, theatre and literature. Encouraged by the African American playwright and Pulitzer Prize winner Vivian Ayers, Durham held his first performance at the Arena Theatre in Houston in 1963. He also started to publish poetry in progressive magazines and alternative newspapers. After these first forays into the arts Durham enrolled at the University of Texas in Austin, where he exhibited his work in 1965. He moved to Geneva in 1969 and enrolled at the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts, where he focused on performance and abstract sculpture.
In 1973 Durham moved back to the US and became a full-time organiser for the American Indian Movement and, a year later, a member of its Central Council. In 1974 Durham was appointed Executive Director of the newly established International Indian Treaty Council and moved to New York. From 1975 to 1980 he was co-editor of the Council’s monthly newspaper, the Treaty Council News. He also served as the representative of Treaty Council at the United Nations.
In 1980 Durham left the American Indian Movement and the International Indian Treaty Council and returned to his artistic practice. In the early 1980s he was Director of the Foundation for the Community of Artists in New York and editor of its monthly publication, Art and Artists Newspaper (formerly Artworkers News). In 1983 he published a book of poems, Columbus Day, with West End Press. In an article in Art in America in 1993 the art critic Lucy Lippard wrote of Durham’s work, ‘[T]hrough punning titles and contemporary details like discarded car parts, hardware, plastic toys, a police barrier or quotations from [post-colonial philosopher] Frantz Fanon, the sculptures break through the Western time frame that is supposed to confine them.’1
In 1987 Durham moved to Cuernavaca, Mexico, where he lived with his partner, artist Maria Thereza Alves. Over the next few years he showed his work frequently in both solo exhibitions (including a travelling show at Exit Art, New York in 1989) and group exhibitions, such as documenta IX in Kassel in 1992 and the Whitney Biennial in New York in 1993. Durham’s concerns about the rights of American Indians and colonialism remained an important aspect of his thinking and were reflected in his published writings, for example, in Artforum, Third Text, New Observations and Art Journal. In 1993 a compendium of his essays, A Certain Lack of Coherence, was published by Kala Press. A second volume of Durham’s writings, Jimmie Durham: Waiting to be Interrupted. Selected Writings 1993–2012, was published by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Antwerp and Mousse Publishing in 2014.
Durham’s practice incorporated a range of media and processes such as sculptural assemblage, painting, drawing, collage, printmaking, photography, video, performance and poetry. His art and writing in the 1980s and early 1990s sought to undermine mainstream imagery and narratives about Native Americans through ironic subversion. In essays such as ‘The Ground Has Been Covered’, published in Artforum in 1988, Durham argued that the oppression and misrepresentation of Native Americans was a fundamental reality of the US national project that needed to be challenged and undermined. Durham continued to use in his artworks whatever materials were near to hand and accessible, including stone, wood and animal bones and hides, alongside car parts, plastic and metal pipe, glass and other detritus of the modern world.
In 1994 Durham returned to Europe and remained there for the rest of his life, living and working in several different cities including Dublin, Rome and Berlin. In Europe his work often focused on the deconstruction of national identities and an analysis of the narratives, architecture and monuments relating to them. In a 2017 interview Durham described his approach to national identity in the following way:
I did leave home deliberately and have been accused of not being part of any Indian community, and that’s certainly a correct accusation. I’m not, don’t want to be. But I think when I came to Europe this time, in ’94, I stopped being any special kind of human being ... I could never be any nationality, not of the Cherokee nation or any other nation ... These days, it sounds stupid to say I’m a citizen of the world. I don’t think I am a citizen, I think I’m a homeless person in the world, and I like to be that way.2
Durham’s work has been shown widely in Europe, as well as in numerous international exhibitions and biennials, such as the Gwangju Biennial in 2004, the Venice Biennale in 2001, 2003, 2005 and 2011, and documenta in Kassel in 1992 and 2012. In 2005 Durham co-curated, with Richard William Hill, The American West at Compton Verney in Warwickshire, an exhibition that challenged the myths arising from the European expansion across North America. There have been several large, monographic exhibitions of Durham’s work, including From the West Pacific to the East Atlantic at the Musée d’art contemporaine, Marseille and GEM in The Hague in 2003, and Pierres rejetés at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 2009. In 2012 MuHKA in Antwerp exhibited a career retrospective, A Matter of Life and Death and Singing. Further important solo exhibitions were staged at Portikus, Frankfurt (2010), at Neuer Berliner Kunstverein, Berlin and at the Serpentine Gallery, London (both 2015). Durham received the Goslarer Kaiserring, a major international prize for contemporary art, in 2016, and was awarded the 2017 Robert Rauschenberg Award. In 2017 Durham also had his first solo show in the United States for over two decades: the survey exhibition Jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World, which was organised by the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles and travelled to museums across North America.
Durham died in Berlin on 17 November 2021, aged 81.
Monika Bayer-Wermuth and Hannah Johnston
Revised November 2021
Jimmie Bob Durham (July 10, 1940 – November 17, 2021) was an American sculptor, essayist and poet. He was active in the United States in the civil rights movements of African Americans and Native Americans in the 1960s and 1970s, serving on the central council of the American Indian Movement (AIM). He returned to working at art while living in New York City. His work has been extensively exhibited. Durham also received the Günther-Peill-Preis (2003), the Foundation for Contemporary Arts Robert Rauschenberg Award (2017), and the 58th Venice Biennale's Golden Lion for lifetime achievement (2019).
He long claimed to be Cherokee but that claim has been denied by tribal representatives: "Durham is neither enrolled nor eligible for citizenship in any of the three federally-recognized and historical Cherokee Tribes: the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians of Oklahoma, and the Cherokee Nation." He had "no known ties to any Cherokee community".