Artist, poet, performer, essayist, activist: Jimmie Durham (1940–2021) is a unique figure in the international art history of the last half century. His work addresses the foundations of European and North American culture, deconstructing received ideas and accepted categories. This first retrospective exhibition after his death in late 2021 features over 150 works, some never previously exhibited. It creates links across time periods within thematic sequences, combining elements of chronology with a narrative approach and including references to the artist’s experiments with spatial strategies in key historical exhibitions. Across a career spanning more than fifty years, Durham dedicated his practice to the critical decoding of the naturalized images and symbols that underpin dominant cultural systems. His works, marked by a strong vein of humour, range from sculptures to videos, poems, performances, installations, paintings, drawings, collages, prints and essays. Constructing ‘illegal combinations with rejected objects’, across natural and industrial materials, Durham generated ruptures within conventions of language and knowledge.
The exhibition is a tribute to an artist whose protean, multi-layered work is fundamental to the understanding of contemporary art and its possible futures. Its title, taken from a print by Durham, underlines his project to relativize as culturally specific the universalizing and teleological notions of the human characteristic of European modernity. The opening sequence lays out Durham’s critique of notions of authenticity, identity, truth and nationhood – ‘Veracity’ and ‘Voracity’ read two of his early sculptural signs. While at art school in Geneva from 1969, Durham was part of a network of thinkers and activists involved in Third World and Indigenous liberation movements, and in 1973 he returned to the US to join in civil rights struggles. He worked with the Central Council of the American Indian Movement (AIM), helping to establish AIM: Women of All Red Nation (WARN), and then from 1975, as founding director of the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC) at the United Nations, worked on the integration into international law of the ‘Universal Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples’. In 1979, he resigned from the AIM, expressing doubts as to its political autonomy, and shifted his focus back to art making, while also declaring his intent to maintain an engagement with ongoing struggles.