Letters: Identities Clarified?


Numerous Cherokee artists, curators, and scholars have responded to the traveling retrospective “Jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World,” organized by the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and on view now at Walter Art Center in Minneapolis (through October 8), with renewed calls to clarify that the artist is not a member of the Cherokee nation. Writer Jonathan Griffin discussed the exhibition for Art in America‘s May issue, noting how many of the works on view relate to questions of Durham’s self-identification as Native. America Meredith and Ashley Holland, two Cherokee writers, have contributed responses to Griffin’s essay and to the exhibition for our September issue.

Their arguments echo points made by others in the early 1990s. On the occasion of the opening of “Jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World” at the Hammer this past spring, we republished online a 1993 article by critic Lucy Lippard titled, “Jimmie Durham—Postmodernist ‘Savage.'” In re-presenting Lippard’s essay, we omitted an important exchange that took place on the Letters page in response to it, with contributions from Durham, Nancy Marie Mitchell (now Mithlo), and Lippard. We are publishing those letters online now in this interest of fostering an informed discussion. —Eds.

To the Editors:

Thank you for publishing the generous and kind words about my work by Lucy Lippard [A.i.A., Feb. ‘93] and Brian Wallis [“Front Page,” Feb. ‘93].

May I now ask the favor that you include the following statement in your “Letters” column?

I am not Cherokee. I am not an American Indian. This is in concurrence with recent U.S. legislation, because I am not enrolled on any reservation or in any American Indian community.

Jimmie Durham

Cuernavaca, Mexico


To the Editors:

In reference to Lucy Lippard’s article on Jimmie Durham, I would like to point out the qualifiers that researchers like Lippard resort to in their eagerness to codify the complex genre of contemporary Indian art.

Durham’s career description provides all the stereotypical boxes for the non-Indian consumer to check and therefore comprehend: artist born into a clan (check), participation in Native American church (check), AIM involvement (check), journey to the woods to find a name (check), appropriate animal guardian relationship (check), Santa Fe art bashed as insincere (check), tie-in with traditional norms—i.e. Cherokees make good writers (check), artist gives gifts in the Indian way (check).

Lippard’s choice of Durham as an Indian artist and her presentation of his work as Indian art exposes the distance the mainstream has to travel to sincerely appreciate and understand what is going on in this field. This is not “Cherokee art” intervening into a mainstream, as Lippard suggests. It is the mainstream awkwardly grasping for a new commodity which is outside their worldview. Durham evidently knows that the complexity of Indian art and Indian artists’ status can successfully mask his performance (which the publication of this article proves). However, your readers should be aware that this artist’s fame stems from your ignorance. He knows your language, which boxes you need to check, which names to drop, and what injustices to cry.

Despite her proven ethnic art track record, Lippard falls for all the traps, resulting in an article which is not only predictable, but borders on inaccuracy, for all Indian art is not as full of “humorless theorizing and earnest proselytizing” as Lippard would have us believe.

Nancy Marie Mitchell

Chiricahua Apache,

Santa Fe, N.M.


Lucy R. Lippard replies:

Re: Nancy Mitchell’s clever letter:

I didn’t “choose” Jimmie Durham as an Indian artist, but as an artist whose work I have known for some 12 years and obviously find provocative and evocative. Codification and list-checking have never been my strong points, but there are certain elements I guess I could check off on artists of any cultural affiliation whom I choose to write about: originality, wit, social commitment, rebelliousness, accessibility, political ferocity, etc.-virtues I often find in other Native artists whose work I like, such as Robert Haozous, Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie, Ramona Sakiestwa, Duane Slick, Carm Little Turtle, or Jean La Marr, to name a few currently in the Santa Fe area. (When I wrote “humorless theorizing and earnest proselytizing,” I wasn’t talking about Indian art or about Santa Fe, but if the shoe fits…). These artists too might get some checks in the categories Mitchell lists. Is there something inherently bad about these categories? Am I supposed to pretend they mean nothing and assimilate Native artists into a mainstream they may not want to be swallowed by?

I continue to admire Durham’s failure to fit either Indian or mainstream norms. Given his statement here, it looks as though his disillusion with communal infighting is now complete. His forced rejection of his own identity may be another in-your-face act of non-conformity and it may be a tragedy. Either way, it will undoubtedly be misread by many just as his art (and his relative success) seems to push any number of buttons within the divided Native community. Which is a pity, because a lot of terrific art is being made by Native artists who happen to be enrolled and unenrolled in the various nations, and that art is what deserves our attention.