In light of the renewed attempts by art writers to position Jimmie Durham as a Cherokee, an American Indian, and a Person of Color in connection to the traveling retrospective exhibit Jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World, Nancy Marie Mithlo, PhD (Chiricahua Apache), granted FAAM permission to republish her 1993 letter to the editor in Art in America. While Art in America recently posted Lucy R. Lippard’s article, “Jimmie Durham—Post-Modern ‘Savage’ ” online, they did not publish the letters written in response to this article.
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: artists 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 based as insincere (check), tie-in with traditional norms—i.e. Cherokees makes 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 of 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 [Mithlo]
Santa Fe, N.M.
From: “Letters: Identities Clarified?,” Art in America 81, no. 7 (July 1993): 23.
“I am not Cherokee. I am not an American Indian.” —Jimmie Durham,
“Letters: Identities Clarified?,” Art in America 81, no. 7 (July 1993): 23.