Issues & Commentary: Jonathan Griffin Responds


A Jimmie Durham retrospective has revived questions about the artist’s identity. Here, Jonathan Griffin responds to Ashley Holland (Cherokee Nation) and America Meredith regarding his feature on Durham from Art in America‘s May 2017 issue. 


I cannot overstate how much I have learned in the course of researching and writing this essay, and in the subsequent debates driven by the scholarship and reasoned arguments of Meredith, Holland, and their colleagues. The fact that I—like so many others—was oblivious to the extraordinary claims of “ethnic fraud” in Durham’s narrative raises troubling questions about who gets to write art history, about the effectiveness of our archives, and about whose voices are amplified and whose are ignored.

It is beyond question that Native American tribes have the sovereign right to autonomy and self-determination. It is also beyond doubt that Durham is not an enrolled member of any Native tribe. He freely admits as much. I cannot argue with Holland’s contentions that Durham’s use of Cherokee language is imprecise, or that his references to Cherokee myths and traditions are inaccurate. But to say that the issue of Durham’s ethnicity is “simple” seems unfair. Durham has never sought this validation of his identity. He never tried to prove his Cherokee heritage to those authorities who would legitimize it. Given his vocal criticisms of the system of registration, his inflammatory words about Native society (“colonization . . . makes people stupid” 1 ) and his rejection of most of the sanctioned Native arts and crafts that the IACA was established primarily to protect, why would any tribe claim him? 

When Durham uses romantic and stereotypical Native motifs, he is openly critiquing the systems of prejudice and ignorance that make them so. These motifs are traps in a body of work that is fundamentally concerned with the subject of authenticity. When looking at Durham’s art, I—as a white, European viewer—apprehend such motifs in his work as being “Indian” an instant before I realize I am being fucked with, and that I am guilty of the very fetishization that the artist is calling out.  Durham flings at non-Native viewers such unstable references before exposing their very instability.

For what it’s worth, I cannot believe that Jimmie Durham is a white man who has consistently lied about his family background, as if consumed by a shameful desire for Native American culture. I am also not convinced that his five-decade career in art, writing, and activism has been detrimental to the growing exposure of Native American art on the international stage. Speaking with Meredith and Holland on the radio show Native America Calling recently, artist Jeffrey Gibson (Choctaw-Cherokee) credited Durham with opening up a space in contemporary art for Native concerns that he found “incredibly freeing.”

What does this debate mean for our understanding of Durham’s work in the future? There are three broad scenarios I can imagine. In the first, Durham is proved to be an unrepentant ethnic fraud in the mold of Rachel Dolezal, as Holland suggests. In this scenario, his entire oeuvre could be seen as a remarkable—if unhinged and utterly unreliable—examination of identity, its social construction, and its public performance. If, on the other hand, Durham is exonerated from these accusations (for example, by genealogical research more rigorous than what websites like currently allow), then this chapter in his biography would serve as an illustration of a presumption of guilt. If—and this may be the most likely reality—the truth is somewhere between the two, that his self-presentation as Native American, though grounded in good faith and consonant with his upbringing and self-understanding, may have relied on some smudged truths and edited biography, then his art is entirely reflective of his identity as a dubiously authentic Native American, and its academic contextualization should keep this in the foreground. 

Crucially, in all three scenarios, Durham should never be regarded as an “ambassador” for his tribe or his race. This conception of an artist’s role would, I suspect, be utterly anathema to him. He does not speak for anyone except himself, as I believe that the retrospective at the Hammer made abundantly clear. To discredit him because he fails to fulfill this function is to misunderstand the unique and solitary path that he has forged for himself over the last half century. I remain intensely distrustful of anyone who claims to speak for their entire group, as if a tribe or an ethnic group—no matter how close-knit—were a monolithic entity, and not a responsive network of individuals, some with louder voices than others.