Jimmie Durham was born in 1940 in Washington, Arkansas.After serving with the US Navy for a period of time, in the early 1960s he moved to Houston; there he met Vivian Ayers, the Afro-American Pulitzer prize-winning playwright, and made with her his first performance at the Arena Theatre in 1963, reading texts by famous Native chiefs. Three years later, in a solo show in Austin, Durham presented a series of abstract sculptures. His friendship with some Swiss students met at the Texas University brought him to Geneva in 1968, where he attended the École des Beaux-Arts and got in touch with African and Latin politicians. In 1973 he returned to the States to take part in the clash between Native Americans and governmental forces at Wounded Knee. He joined the American-Indian Movement (AIM) as political organizer, and in 1974 he became director of the International Indian Treaty Council. When AIM split up (1980), Durham left both organizations and resumed his interest for art, creating the first series of works made with bones of different animals. The first of this series, consisting of odd, small, coloured objects made with skulls, was exhibited in 1982 during the Festival of the Dead in Manhattan, in the Ritual & Rhythm: Visual Forces for Survival group show, curated at the Kenkeleba House by Juan Sanchez. With him the following year Durham wrote the article Visual Artists and Anti-Apartheid, published on “Art and Artists” (12.7, June 1983), a magazine of the Foundation of the Community of Artists of New York, a sort of mutual aid association that Durham directed from 1981 to 1983. His assemblages and installations of “found objects” lend themselves to many interpretations: they evoke the fusion of all forms of life (symbolized by hard stones, shells, fur, bones and artifacts), they recall the mythical past of those animals or of an entire people, but also the social forces that killed them, as in the case of the impressive Karankawa (1983), dominated by a human skull found on a beach in Texas, where the Karankawa people were massacred in 1819. All these works are animated by a multicultural spirit, epitomized by the diversity of materials used (Tlunh datsi, 1985, Museum Ludwig Köln). Materials that Durham uses to question western stereotypes and biases on American Indians, just like he does in the book Columbus Day (West End Press, Albuquerque 1983), containing poems, texts in prose, drawings and quotes from his own speeches, in which he subverts the account of Columbus’ ill-omened journey. In 1987 he moved to Cuernavaca, Mexico, with photographer and video maker Maria Thereza Alves. Winner of a scholarship from the New York State Council on the Arts for poetry in 1985, in 1988 one of his poems was published in Harper’s Anthology of 20th Century Native American Poetry (Harper and Row, San Francisco). In 1989 his solo show The Bishop's Moose was first held at the Exit Art of New York and then toured the States, focused on drawings and assemblages in which the relationship between writing and interpretation becomes more intimate and profound. An example of these are Not Lothar Baumgarten's Cherokee and Not Joseph Beuy's Coyote presented in 1990 at the Centre International d'Art Contemporain of Montreal, where the negative in the title is a response to the appropriation by white artists of Cherokee elements and symbols, and is also found in the statement of western Avant-garde: “Ceci n'est pas une pipe”, which appears in René Magritte’s painting La trahison des images (1928–29, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California).
A poet and essayist, as well as an artist, Durham pays much attention to language, so important in the tradition of his people to the point that in the 19th century they autonomously created their own alphabet and written language. Hence his interest for the difficulties encountered when translating from a language, or a culture, into a different one, or the fascination for historical figures that were voluntary or involuntary translators, such as Pocahontas or Cortes and Malinche, who are the protagonists of the big installation titled Ama, that he created in 1991 at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Antwerp (Belgium) for the America's Bride of the Sun: 500 Years of Flemish Influence on Latin American Art exhibition. The early 1990s are characterized by an intense activity, both in terms of exhibitions (Documenta IX in Kassel in 1992, solo shows at the London ICA and at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels in 1993) and of publications, that he gathered in part in the book A Certain Lack of Coherence. Writings on Art and Cultural Politics (Kala Press, London 1993). In the mid 1990s he started investigating the relationship between language, architecture and National history with sculptures, performances and videos in which the stone – the privileged constructing material – is freed from its usual association with monumentality, stability and duration. For Durham stone is not only the first utensil used by man, but also an element that is far older than humankind and is bound to outlive it. After moving to Europe in 1994 and settling in Berlin in 1997, Durham creates works that support his criticism of architecture as the utmost expression of western modernism: The Center of the World, or How to Get to Chalma, with stones put in a random order on a street (1996, Pori, Finland), or the pile of rubbish that composes Maquette for Public Sculpture in Rome (1997). Mixing his ethnic vocabulary (the Cherokee culture but also the lesson of American artists such as Robert Rauschenberg) with the vocabulary of Eurasia (as he calls the old continent), Durham’s work is less ethnological, less identity-centred and more profoundly representative of the multiculturalism of the third millennium. This evolution earned him the invitation to the XLVIII Venice Biennial in 1999, and it is made explicit in the title of the European anthology organized in 2003-04 by the museums of Marseille, the Hague and Gateshead (England): From the West Pacific to the East Atlantic. After St. Frigo in 1996, he starts making compositions with broken objects of daily use. In this case, destruction takes on a positive meaning of change, though, because “art, as nature, creates also when it apparently destroys”, says Giacinto Di Pietrantonio in the book that narrates Durham’s experience as visiting professor at the advanced course in Visual Arts at the Antonio Ratti Foundation of Como in 2004. As the site specific installations of 2003 at Colle Val d’Elsa, for the Arte all’Arte project expresses his poetics of nature, Still Life with Stone and Car – a big boulder dropped on a car at the XIV Sidney Biennial in 2004, is an example of Durham’s work with stones. After participating to the XLIX and L Venice Biennials (2001, 2003), he returned to Venice one more time in 2005 with the installation-sculpture Something (Perhaps a Fugue or an Elegy). In the same year, together with Richard William Hill at Compton Verney, Great Britain, he curated The American West exhibition, aimed at demolishing the cowboy and Indian mythology. More generally, all Durham’s work is first and foremost aimed at criticizing, with wit and irony, the colonial structure that lies at the basis of the culture of rich western society, to which he opposes a different theoretical and practical way of looking at the world, as documented by the participation to exhibitions such as: Quauhnahuac - Die Gerade ist eine Utopie [The straight line is a utopia] at the Kunsthalle in Basel, and Less – Alternative Living Strategies at the Contemporary Art Pavilion of Milan (2006) or Peripheral vision and collective body at the Museion of Bolzano (2008).
|Materials||furniture, office furnishing|
|Materials||reinforced concrete and iron|
26.03.08 | 26.05.08
Wood, stone and friends
15.12.12 | 27.02.13
14.12.12 | 16.12.12