On the occasion of the traveling retrospective “Jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World,” currently at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, through May 7, we looked back in our archive for this 1993 feature on Durham by Lucy Lippard. The Cherokee artist’s work contests derogatory stereotypes of Native American art and culture. “[T]hrough punning titles and contemporary details like discarded car parts, hardware, plastic toys, a police barrier or quotations from Frantz Fanon, the sculptures break through the Western time frame that is supposed to confine them,” Lippard writes on Durham’s work of the early 1980s. “They emerge, belligerently, in today’s screwed-up world.” We present Lippard’s article in full below. —Eds.
I am a Cherokee artist who strives to make Cherokee art that is considered just as universal and without limits at the art of any white man Is considered….If I am able to see both Cherokee art and all other art as equally universal and valuable, and you are not, then we need to have a serious talk.
—Jimmie Durham, Bulletin of the Alternative Museum, 1984
Jimmie Durham offers a dialogue for which neither the Native nor the non-Native world is ready. As a Cherokee artist, writer, poet, performer and treaty activist, he sees the world through the eyes of Coyote––the trickster, the Native American embodiment of all that is base and godlike in humans. His art peels away the decorative wrappings that disguise the American Indian in the United State’s colonial present.
To begin with, Durham’s work is often deceptively modest, its anger and its intelligence veiled by a deliberate obtuseness and formal awkwardness. His oeuvre can be wrestled into five overlapping categories. First, there are the handsome sculptures that focus on animal skulls, large and small, plain or embellished, re-embodying and redecorating a physical past. Second, there are the satirical works, like On Loan from the Museum of the American Indian (1984), which bring together almost randomly an odd assortment of “sociofacts and scientifacts” (toothbrush, feathered underpanties, family photos) framed by captions about the ordinary life of present-day Indians. These brief texts satirically protest the ethnographic habit of perceiving anything about Indians as fair game for the display cases of history, deflecting the naïve points of “educational” display to prove that “they’re human beings, just like us” (to quote an idiotic line form the movie Black Robe). Third, there is the work in which the relationship between writing and rendering becomes more intimate even as the conflict between the two deepens. 1 “The Bishop’s Moose,” Durham’s 1989 one-man show that opened at Exit Art and traveled around the country for a while, was centered on drawings, assemblages and assemblage-drawings, most of them involving inscriptions, which can be loosely fitted together as installations. Fourth, there are the powerful, new, almost monumental, almost abstract sculptures, like the 100-foot-long snake he showed recently in the exhibition “Will/Power” at the Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio––its mud-formed head contrasting eerily with its pale-green, industrial-pipe body. And all along, a fifth category has accompanied the others––performance and impermanent indoor or outdoor installations that sometimes blur into the artist’s writings.
Until recently, Durham’s art works have been fairly small in scale, carved and assembled (often on the road) from found but not necessarily quaint objects. Juxtaposed with images or texts, sometimes recycled from earlier installations, they may incorporate some scribbled words (even “scrawled” is too dramatic a description for his lackadaisical epistolary style)––a far cry from the commercially imitative neatness of much conceptual postmodern art. [pq]Durham’s pieces often use the historical associations of specific sites to draw parallels between Native Americans and other colonized peoples.[/pq]His work is honestly modest and humorously disjunctive, with a bite that is worse than its bark. The objects themselves may not seem to “amount to much” out of context, precisely because of the way Durham brings them together to make subtle political points.
Long an involuntary “American,” like so many indigenous people occupying a “fourth world” within the first world, Durham moved from New York to Cuernavaca, Mexico, in 1987. He lives there with Brazilian-American photographer Maria Thereza Alves, His installations made in the last five years in Ireland, England, Canada, Belgium, Germany, as well as the U.S., have become the way he transcends cultural homelessness. They confront the histories of specific sites through Cherokee eyes and with special attention paid to local parallels or intersections with Cherokee history. For instance, Durham’s 1988 London show, at Matt’s Gallery, titled “Mataoka Ake Attakulakula Anel Guledisgo Hnihi: Pocahontas and the Little Carpenter in London,” dealt with the kidnapped Indian princess who died in London as “Lady Rebecca” and an 18th-century Cherokee delegate to London whose nickname was “the Fixer,” in honor of his diplomatic talents.
Similarly, for . . . very much like the Wild Irish, an outdoor project made at the Orchard Gallery in Derry, Northern Ireland, in 1988, Durham distributed a broadside that drew parallels between the histories of two colonized peoples: the Irish and the American Native. The focus of the installation was a ceremonial pole / Celtic cross carved on the spot from a standing yew tree. Attached to it were found objects, including two large rearview mirrors and “a homemade savage video camera made of wood and a coke bottle lens” intended to challenge the British Army’s ubiquitous surveillance cameras in Northern Ireland. Behind the pole was a small earth work, constructed to resemble an archeological dig. The final element of the project was an ongoing compilation of photos and “evidence” submitted by the public as Durham wandered around the city talking to people about history and tradition.
Durham says he has not been a “studio artist” for 20 years:
I only do things specifically for a show or a project because I want it to be connected to whatever I am up to in society and whatever society’s up to. . . . I’m not satisfied by making shapes and then throwing them at the world. . . . I’m not really an artist on my own, [he insists,] I’m a social artist in that I want my work to be part of whatever discourses are going on. . . . It is very problematical for me––I don’t think I own a real self. When I’m “on my own” in the woods or here on my canyon terrace [in Mexico], I’m just being with all the stuff that’s there. Without stimulus from outside I’d be perfectly content in those situations for an indefinite time. 2
Despite his quarrels with the way art is perceived, defined and manhandled in this society, Durham is suddenly much in demand. He looks at this situation wryly, as well as with pleasure at the rare economic reprieve. In the last two years he has performed in New York, made a second outdoor piece in Derry, written articles for Artforum, Third Text, New Observations and the Art Journal, lectured and exhibited internationally, including at last summer’s Documenta IX. At the same time, he has had to deal with the tempest stirred up by the government’s as-yet-unenforceable Indian Arts and Crafts Board Law, in the course of which Durham had one show cancelled and was accused of not being an Indian for refusing to register with his tribe. 3
His current popularity cannot be ascribed solely to the highly contested “multicultural boom” or to the fact that 1992 was the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s accidental invasion of the Americas and the beginning of many woes for Durham’s ancestors, Durham is hot now because his peculiar brand of irreverence, spirituality, politics and sophistication has guts. His work is a welcome antidote to the humorless theorizing and earnest proselytizing of much art on the subjects he tackles. His transgressive, syncretic art is a subtle swamp into which the unwarned Euro-American viewer can step and sink. Yet even as his art mocks us, it mocks itself and its maker as well. Ferocious self-doubt mixes with courageous self-determination to give Durham’s art its unique edge.
“I am trying to direct my rage at the proper targets,” Durham says, “to get my rage stronger and sharper, and to not fall into the trap of ‘taking an attitude,’ of escapism, through putting other people down. Back home we have old people who have the most amazing power––it shines and vibrates, and I think that it comes from their goodness and generosity of spirit. They are smart, miss nothing, and they are strong. But what one sees is just goodness. I’d like to achieve that. When it comes time to die, [I’d like to] say to the shit, ‘ha ha, shit, I won!'” 4 (a most Coyote-like statement).
Born into the Wolf Clan in 1940 in Nevada County, Ark., Durham was raised there and in Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma, as his father traveled looking for work. At 16, he left home to work at ranching jobs in Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico, and became a member of the Native American Church, best known for its once-legal use of peyote. (The church’s water bird imagery still turns up in Durham’s art.) Later he “got stupid and joined the Navy.” 5 He built atomic bombs in Nevada until he asked for a transfer and saw the Pacific on minesweepers, spending time in North and South Vietnam in 1960. (“Our job was to start the war.”)
After his discharge, Durham landed in Houston, where he met the Pulitzer Prize-winning African-American playwright Vivian Ayers. With her encouragement, he did his first performance, in 1963, at the Arena Theatre in Houston. Durham read texts by famous Native leaders; Ayers also participated, as did Muhammad Ali, who read his own poetry. Later in the ’60s Durham moved to Austin, where he worked as a furnace mechanic at the University of Texas and attended lectures, concerts and other events. There he made friends with some Swiss students who invited him to visit them, and in 1968 he turned up on their doorsteps in Geneva. To keep his visa, he enrolled in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Genève, and eventually earned a degree in art. He made abstract sculptures, “a Cherokee trying to be European,” he recalls, “which made my work odd.” 6
Having been influenced in Geneva’s international ambience by African and Latin American politics, Durham returned to the U.S. to participate in 1973 in the confrontation between radical Native Americans and government forces at Wounded Knee. He spent most of the ’70s with the American Indian Movement (AIM), serving on its executive committee until 1980. In 1974 AIM created the International Treaty Council, with Durham as director (“I’d lived in Europe, and by default, I was our jetsetter” 7 ). He set up offices in New York and Geneva, and represented the organization at the United Nations, trying to pass resolutions through the Decolonization Committee and Human Rights Commission. The Council’s goals were to find a way for the Indians of the two Americas to work together without forming an organization and to work in every possible way for justice for indigenous peoples internationally, because, says Durham, “We can’t trust any single country to give us a fair deal.” 8
Finally, disillusioned with communal infighting, Durham left both organizations. He tried to write a history of AIM (which he never finished), went back to construction work, and in 1982 became director of the Foundation of the Community of Artists, a New York artists’ advocacy group, where he helped edit the newspaper Art and Artists. In 1985, having received a NYSCA grant for poetry, he left to produce Columbus Day, published by West End Press. Since the late ’70s he had also been making art, “secretly, as therapy once in a while.”
This new work was a departure from the “studio art” Durham had made in school. A decade of Indian activism had brought him back to the remnants of his own culture, and the new sculptural objects were born from the memory of a crucial childhood experience:
When I was 13 or so I had to go out into the woods and find my real name. Coyote, who invented death and singing, was the spirit who gave me my name. As is often the case, he also gave me a gift. This is what he gave me as a name gift; that I would always see whatever was dead if it were within my field of vision. For more than thirty years I have seen every dead bird and animal every day wherever I am. So it became necessary to see if that was a usable gift or just a dirty trick that would drive me crazy. 9
For several years, bones were literally the skeleton of Durham’s art work. He says he tries to “understand what each particular animal (I mean the individual not the generic) feels about being dead.” The first pieces of this new body of work were shown in 1982 in a group show at Kenkeleba House. They were exhibited in an old-fashioned, glass-fronted cabinet as Manhattan Festival of the Dead––a group of curious, small, colorful objects made of the transformed skulls of a deer, a possum, a baby buffalo, an armadillo, a dog and a cat.[pq]Even as he makes “Cherokee art,” Durham resists making anything that is recognizably “Indian” in the Santa-Fe-Indian-market mold.[/pq]You could buy them for almost nothing if you got there first to sign up for your favorite on a sheet that was part of the exhibit. I acquired the brilliantly painted armadillo skull, about which Durham had written a poem, connecting the image to Tarascan guitars, Indian history and Sequoia, the Cherokee scholar who invented the Cherokee alphabet and later disappeared in Mexico. “I painted the armadillo’s skull bright turquoise and orange,” wrote Durham, “blue and red, black, green, like tiles and Aztec flowers. / Where his old eyes had been I put an agate / and a seashell, for seeing in all directions.” 10
One of the most impressive works from that period is Karankawa (1983), a human skull that Durham found on a Texas beach where the Karankawa people had been massacred. He inlaid it with turquoise and adorned it with symbols and a feather necklace. (It is tempting to see a reference here to the ongoing Native struggles to reclaim ancestral remains and artifacts from national museums.) Other sculptures from this period embrace the mythical lives of sheep, deer, panther and coyote, and suggest the assumed “mythical” past of indigenous peoples. But through punning titles and contemporary details like discarded car parts, hardware, plastic toys, a police barrier or quotations from Frantz Fanon, the sculptures break through the Western time frame that is supposed to confine them. They emerge, belligerently, in today’s screwed-up world.
Like most of his production, Durham’s bone works suggest the fusion of all life forms, symbolized by bits of turquoise, seashell, fur, bone and discarded cultural artifacts. They can be interpreted as strictly poetic and “universal.” But Durham’s work is always multileveled. As well as putting himself in the animal’s place, he also evokes the social forces that killed it. The open jaws of deer, panther, coyote, moose, combine several meanings in a single grimace: these animals laugh, they cry, they snarl, they hear prayers. A significant part of Durham’s identity is somehow wrapped up in them, and dead creatures continue to visit him. “Yesterday I found a dead lizard in my shoe, and now I must try to help it,” he wrote early last year.
I say, “where did this lizard die?” In Mexico, in Cuernavaca, in the state of Morelos, in my shoe. Perhaps with the help of Dow Chemical or Phillips Petroleum or me. He died in Feb. 1991, historically. His death is/cannot be part of history. A war going on, unification of Europe, etc. etc. Suppose a bird had eaten him instead––just as “historical” except I would not be the witness. He died with me. He gives me history, I need to give him history. We need to participate in each other’s history. 11
By 1989, Durham was expressing reluctance to show the bone pieces because they were too “beautiful” and fed viewers’ stereotypes about “Indian” art. In its humor and irony, however, his work is in fact very “Indian.” “Humor is a good weapon against victimization,” he observes. “We Indians are very funny. I’m always impressed at how silly we can be in beautiful ways that would be inappropriate in the normal World.” 12 Yet even as he makes “Cherokee art,” Durham resists making anything recognizably “Indian” in the Santa-Fe-Indian-market mold. His art is not decorative or lyrical and does not reference history through style. He avoids noble braves and bashful maidens, tipis and warbonnets, like the commercial plague they have become. “The ‘Indian’ art market continues to expand,” he says, “but it has never been ours. It has served to isolate ‘Indian’ artists through commercial success in a specialized area.”
These issues point up Durham’s double distance from the U.S. art world––always cultural, now geographic as well. As Jean Fisher has pointed out, “Indigenous America is outside representation, unrepresentable, except as a phantasm masquerading under the misnomer ‘Indian’––a term that homogenizes what was in fact a heterogeneous population, as diverse in language and customs as Europe and Africa.” 13 Durham’s dilemma, as he tries to represent the unrepresentable, is that of any artist who has something to say and something to see, but he also works under long-invalidated expectations of Indian “authenticity.” Acknowledging the ghost dance that a contemporary Indian artist is forced to perform, Durham challenges long-held assumptions about Indians and Indian art. Like many Native modernists, he has long been caught between reluctance to exploit his Indianness and pride in his battered heritage. “We have this trouble with subject matter,” he says, “We’re either not supposed to refer to our own people and our own situation at all, or we’re supposed to exclusively refer to that. . . .There are still only two ways to be accepted as an Indian artist; go back and do stuff that’s seen as ‘authentic’ and do it well; or paint Indian chiefs with green faces and do it that way. That’s not enough. One of my real goals is to broaden the tradition.” 14
As he pursues this goal, Durham addresses the issue of authenticity through irony. In his Exit Art show, he exhibited “Six Authentic Things,” a series of drawings with attached objects. Real Flint, for example, was an actual stone arrowhead, made by Durham, piercing a drawn cavalryman’s heart (the figure reminiscent of a 19th-century Indian ledger drawing). The strange little artifacts incorporated in these works and in his display-case pieces are of course real objects endowed with real artistic integrity by a real Indian person. Disguised as “fakes,” these pieces bear no resemblance to what passes as “real Indian art” in places like Santa Fe, Since Durham’s works incorporate discarded objects, they serve as metaphors for reclamation and resurrection, and reflect on the relegation of Native art to ethnographic rather than to art museums, “Everything people are trying to hide, discard, or ignore,” he says, “I want to reclaim.” 15
When Ward Churchill of Colorado AIM asked him ironically, “Why aren’t you painting Bambi. Why aren’t you this generation’s Allan Houser?” Durham replied, “I like savagery.” 16 He enjoys donning the glitzy garments of “savagery” and “primitivism,” synonyms for alienation and disenfranchisement as well as for resistance. Into the “master narrative,” Durham inserts scathing anecdotes about Indian invisibility in real life. For instance, he cites the astonishing statement by a Georgia novelist that Southern whites were “a conquered and occupied people, the only people in the United States to be like that.” 17 Native Americans live in states within a state that perceives them as “foreigners.” Similarly, artist Luis Camnitzer, writing about Durham, recalls two Kayapo chiefs in Brazil being “arrested and charged as foreigners who had willfully ‘denigrated Brazil’s image abroad'” because they lobbied the World Bank against a dam that would inundate their lands. 18 Durham compares Fourth to Third World experience:
For the peoples of Europe the “Other” may be a foreigner, the person from another place. For those Europeans who have established permanent colonies, such as the U.S., Australia, South Africa or the Latin American countries, it cannot follow that the “Other” is the colonized person “here at home” because that would call into question the very legitimacy of the colonial state. In these states the “Other” must be denied one way or another, Golda Meir said that there were no Palestinians, and South Africa has always claimed that there were no Africans in the area until after the arrival of the settlers. “Aboriginals” have only recently been included in Australia’s census, and of course the American pioneers tamed a “wilderness,” 19
“On a reservation, you start being an artist in our sense, as a useful member of society. They have a use for you.” Like his entire family, Durham has carved objects since childhood––for household use, for the tourist trade, for ceremonies and, finally, for himself. His father was a master carver who picked sassafras, made apple crates and worked at various times as a blacksmith, a carpenter and a saw sharpener. The elder Durham’s last work was a chain carved from wood, which his son then perceived as an emblem of something completely useless, unfaithful to the nature of wood––in short, art, just where he himself would end up:
There is a way my life is beautifully frustrating. I was raised as a political activist and carver and a good fisherman and blacksmith. I label myself an artist for convenience, When I think of myself I don’t have a label. There isn’t time to balance everything, but better that than to devote my life to something other than my life. My life involves whatever my people or the world is up against at any given time. . . .I want to be a person in the world, not enclosed on a reservation or anywhere else. 20
Durham is at once a traditionalist and a radical in that he sees the struggle to maintain Native culture as a revolutionary effort. 21 Whatever he does, he is pursued by the voracious appetites of the dominant culture, which wants not only his land, his art and his culture, but his soul. So he has become the classic moving target, doubling back, crossing his paths, contradicting and confusing those on his trail . . . as well as himself. He exploits American and European interest in the “invented Indian” 22 and, in the process, reverses the cultural expectations. (“We Are Always Turning Around on Purpose” or “Ni’ Go Tlunh A Doh Ka” is the title of an exhibition organized by Durham and critic Jean Fisher in 1986.) His nonvictimized Native is capable of criticizing the dominant culture on its own turf and terms. His instruments are an unnerving honesty (albeit mixed with a certain slyness), a sharp-edged humor and a refusal to capitulate to conventional Western art standards.
Durham’s show at Exit Art, for example, was a curious intercultural bastard form he calls “neo-primitive neo-conceptualism.” It was a play on social authenticity and illusion, real and unreal experience, and the subtle replacement of grandiose religious institutions with a pantheistic reminder. 23 Multifaceted and incoherent, this work was often childish, messy, interrupted and interruptive––all of which was part of Durham’s strategy; a “savage” can’t, Or Won’t, make “fine” art, “As an authorized savage,” he says, “it is my custom and my job to attack.” 24
Because he is a poet and essayist as well as a sculptor, Durham is especially attentive to language. Writing itself plays a major “traditional” role for a Cherokee. By the early 1820s, as one of the five “civilized” tribes in their original homelands––the Southeast––the Cherokees had adapted successfully to European Ways. Having intermarried with both Africans and whites, they farmed, practiced trades, and were the only Indian nation to construct, without white help, their own alphabet and written language. Thousands of Cherokees could read and write their own language; before the whites closed it down, they even had a newspaper––the Phoenix. Of course, none of this model minority stuff cut any ice. Between 1822 and 1831, the Cherokee Nation was brutally stripped of its land and legal rights, and in 1838 its members were sent off to Oklahoma (some went independently to Arkansas) on the Nuna-da-utsun’y (The Trail of Tears), where 4,000 of 15,000 died.
Durham has studied this history carefully, but he feeds it back to us in fragments and overlays, deliberately destroying and re-employing it. While many artists from disenfranchised communities have been telling stories and resurrecting histories and belief systems, Durham’s Cherokee heritage has inspired him to connect the narratives to the very act of writing, making marks, making art, becoming visible. (“Is the country of my people really only a story in the Great American Story?” he asks rhetorically. 25 ) While investigating the difficulties of translation across time and across cultures, he is fascinated by historical figures who, like himself, have been voluntary and involuntary translators: Malinche, Pocahontas, Sacagawea, Iragema. His “archeological” works are also based on the notion of translation, or mistranslation. In 1991, Durham made a large installation in Antwerp for the exhibition “America’s Bride of the Sun: 500 Years of Flemish Influence on Latin American Art.” It was dominated by two large figures of Cortés and Malinche, his Native translator and lover, accompanied by fictional letters conveying their versions of history in Spanish, his typewritten, hers in flowery handwriting. The title of the piece is Ama, which in Spanish is a command––”love me”––and in Cherokee can mean either salt or water––metaphorical tears.
Having witnessed endless misunderstandings of Native American culture, in the early ’80s Durham turned them around by creating José Bedia, a fictional Cuban explorer/archeologist of the 4th millennium, who misunderstands the remains of the “Plane White Culture.” In these works, Durham becomes a “future artifact factory,” deconstructing European hegemony and reconstructing it into a new “Indian” culture through automotive relics. 26 Bedia’s Stirring Wheel is wrapped and fetishized; Bedia’s Muffler resembles a bow. Their tongue-in-cheek captions reverse present-day myths of preconquest America:
“Bedia discovered this Stirring Wheel, sometimes referred to as the ‘Fifth’ or ‘Big’ Wheel, during his second excavation of the ruins at White Planes in 3290 AD; according to legend, White Plames was the capital of the Plane White people, although Bedia finds no proof of their existence.”
Another part of Durham’s agenda involves challenging the use of Native American imagery, symbols and materials in the work of white artists.[pq]Durham calls his recent sculptures “neo-primitive neo-conceptualism” and insists that as a “savage” he can’t––or won’t––make “fine” art.[/pq]”Today we have non-‘Indian’ artists using us as subject matter once more,” says Durham. “It is a phenomenon that seems exactly connected to the special American discourse about ‘primitives’ and ‘primitivism.'” 27 He cites the German artist Lothar Baumgarten, who uses the Cherokee writing system in his work: “When I saw that Baumgarten had used it . . . I felt appropriated and sort of cancelled.” Thus Durham’s installation at the Centre International d’Art Contemporain in Montreal in 1990 included works titled Not Lothar Baumgarten’s Cherokee and Not Joseph Beuys’ Coyote. The latter, a reference to Beuys’s famous performance with a live coyote at the René Block Gallery in New York in 1974, was a skull-on-pole figure with one horn arm and one large rearview mirror arm (the better to see who is catching up from the past). These “negative” titles not only disengage Durham from the white use of Native motifs, but also appropriate in turn the classic avant-gardism of Magritte’s This Is Not a Pipe.
Another work in the Montreal show was called Lawrence Weiner’s Trip to Borneo, and referred to the 1988 show at the Centre Pompidou called “Magiciens de la Terre” [see A.i.A., May and July ’89], in preparation for which the curators hired a few Western artists to help select the non-Western artists by being tourists in various exotic locations. There were only two Native North Americans in the exhibition, and no people of color were asked to be tourists. How could they have been? It would have upset the status quo to have had the seen be seeing.
Giving and taking are therefore recurrent themes in Durham’s witty, bitter and/or outraged commentaries on the unequal interactions between white and Native civilizations in today’s world. “Everything becomes a commodity in this society,” he says. “They’ll steal it from you and then sell it back to you, but by then it’s not the same thing.” 28 He makes a point of giving as good as has been taken away. In a giveaway performance for PADD (Political Art Documentation / Distribution) at Franklin Furnace in 1985, a deadpan Durham told neo-traditional stories and enacted rituals against a background of projected slides showing maps of “trends in Indian land ownership.” As Indian land in North America slowly diminished in the chronologically dissolving slides, Durham ironically turned the other cheek, distributing gifts among the audience that ranged from stones, feathers and gallery flyers to art works and a beautiful ribbon shirt. (The recipient of the shirt, a white artist, later gave Durham an art work in exchange, a gesture of respect, but also, less consciously, acknowledgement of collective guilt and an oblique refusal of the gift as gift.) In a 1990 version of the performance, Catskill Giveaway, at Art Awareness in Lexington, N.Y., audience members departed wondering what to do with the bloodied money and objects (handmade by the artist) they had been given. What, indeed.
The gifts. Durham hands out––including his “salable” art-are booby-trapped with the unwelcome historic consciousness of the artist’s cultural displacement. “I feel fairly sure,” he has said, “that I could address the entire world if only I had a place to stand. You (white Americans) have made everything your turf. In every field, on every issue, the ground has already been covered.” 29
Having no place to stand raises hard issues about audience. “Obviously,” says Durham, “the problem of audience is practically insurmountable (definitely not soluble) for third world artists, so we owe ourselves the inclusion of that insurmountability in our work.” 30 Durham addresses his inevitably white audiences in Ways that perhaps only an Indian can fully enjoy; for instance, he refused to translate publicly the Cherokee writing in his Exit Art retrospective, and has at times planted white hecklers in his performance audiences. Peering over a dump of cultural detritus, economic ostracism, romanticism and plain old racism, Durham spies new territory.
But the view through the eye sockets of the dead is far from rosy. Looking out through a coyote skull as though it were a camera (in Catskill Giveaway), Durham perceives the ongoing situation of the Native American as the American tragedy: “The hidden operant for all American narratives . . . [is] the profound division . . . between ‘Indians’ and settlers.” This invisible discourse “is not a product of U.S., imperialism, but its instructor.” 31 Still looking through the eyes of Coyote, Durham invoked Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones––or wait, is it the good that men do lives after them and the evil is oft interred with their bones? I can’t remember.”
Perhaps the preeminence of skulls and bones in contemporary Indian art is a metaphor both for memory and for the way society sees Native civilization––simultaneously buried and exposed. Idealistically, Jimmie Durham hopes to force the mainstream art audience to confront the fact of a “Cherokee art” that intervenes in their world and, by extension, in the American narrative.