April 21, 2017

By Kim Scupham

In January this year, The Hammer Museum in Los Angeles opened up the retrospective Jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World. Internationally renowned sculptor, published essayist and poet, performer, and lifelong activist for American Indian rights, Jimmie Durham is an artist of perpetual relevance.

Jimmie Durham, born in Arkansas in 1940, began work as a sculptor in 1963. He moved to Europe in 1969 to study at the L’Ecole de Beaux Arts in Geneva and formed two groups: the Draga, which endeavored to bring the arts to public life, and the Incomindios, which attempted to support Native Peoples and their struggles.  Durham returned to the US in 1974 and became a full-time organizer with the American Indian Movement (AIM). In the 1980s, he embraced art again and made his mark in New York and Mexico, and in 1994, returned to Europe. Durham’s work has been exhibited and praised worldwide.

After two decades, Durham’s curated art from the span of his artistic timeline has finally returned to the US. Fashioned semi-chronologically among the white walls of the Hammer Museum, this exhibition is a process of deep reflection dusted with good humor that no doubt mirrors Durham’s thinking mind. And many of these reflections are relevant today, given the political happenstance with immigrant status in the US and the ongoing Dakota Access Pipeline protest.

Durham’s sculpture, titled “Self Portrait” from 1986, is a confronting true-to-scale yet unreal interpretation of an American Indian that we can assume is representative of Durham himself. The head is a curious homage to how we traditionally view Native American art, colorful with braids and feathers. The penis, erect and glowing with yellow paint, also conforms to racial stereotype by which Durham comments matter-of-factly “Indian penises are unusually large and colorful” next to the feature. The body of the artwork is rife with reflective yet wistful commentary like, “I am basically light-hearted” next to a window to his heart which contains yellow feathers, “Useless nipple”, and “My skin is not really this dark, but I am sure that many Indians have coppery skin”. The collection of his words challenge convention of what is considered traditional Native American and illustrates the discordance with non-traditional Native American peoples, such as having an appendix removed hence “Appendix scar”. This forces the viewer to question their owns views and harbored stereotypes, a pertinent faculty to have living among our modern predicaments.

An activity in challenging one’s views, a humored yet thought-provoking display of a collection of rocks dot the exhibition. Three pieces come to mind. The first, a glass cabinet of petrified objects: a pizza, a block of mozzarella, salami mounted on a cutting board, a slab of bacon, even a cloud among other things, all labeled with pencil on a strip of paper as if a scientific display. But alas they are all rocks. The second piece called “Someone Stole My Diamond” from 1998 illustrates three silicon-based minerals, graphite, rose quartz, and diamond, the latter of which has been stolen with the words “at least they did not erase my graphite” in parenthesis. The value of which we place on these materials differ, and by the same token, we may value certain things that others do not. The third piece called “Obsidian arabesque” from 2009, made of obsidian rock and human hair, is a cultural reflection and proclamation to perhaps how tribes communicated in varied speech, gestures, and visuals. The rocks and hair seem to create an English sentence marked with an exclamation and a question, and the viewer tries to decipher the message but to no avail.

Durham’s sculptures are bare-boned, structural assemblages of exploration of identity. “Something…Perhaps a Fugue or an Elegy” from 2005 is perhaps the most nostalgic and thought-provoking piece, and ultimately ties in the theme of Durham’s life’s work: identity. Made up of dated electronics, like VCRs and cameras, a doll’s head, intertwined with tree branches, sea shells, wood, and other natural materials, all held together on a horizontal platform from “Start” to “Stop”, may be indicative of the confusing, life-long mess that is trying to find one’s identity, or the loss of one’s identity, and the sadness of both.

And perhaps as a commitment to Draga’s mission, Jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World is a free exhibition that I stumbled into from the streets of Los Angeles.

Installation view, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, January 29 – May 7, 2017.