Mataoka Ake Attakulakula Anel Guledisgo Hnihi (Pocahontas and the Little Carpenter in London)
10 – 19 October 1988
Poet, writer, political activist, performance artist and sculptor: Jimmie Durham's multi-faceted artistic persona testifies not only to a general refusal to be bound by the limiting categories of Western 'specialisms'; nor does it simply reflect the polyvalent creative strategies that traditionally gave Cherokee society its strength and lability; it is also an effect of cultural difference.
For the Native American, cultural integrity is a complex issue: having for so long been subjected to the perversions and fantasies of the Western world, what can now be said to constitute an authentic native tradition, experience or identity? As Jimmie Durham, writing in 1983 in his book Columbus Day, says of Indian stereotypes, ‘One of the most terrible aspects of our situation today is that none of us feel that we are real Indians: For the most part we feel guilty, and try to measure up to the white man's definition of ourselves.’ Durham must speak from a designated position in a landscape of ambivalent signs; yet it is a position that neither ‘names-nor-places’ him. We find, therefore, that parody becomes a strategy for gaining self-empowerment against the impossibility of this assigned non-position. As with Trickster, the ground is always shifting through a constant proliferation of identities.
In Durham's installations it is the institutional codes of ethnography, history, archaeology, in their consumption of native cultures that become targets of his witty iconoclasm. On Loan from the Museum of the American Indian, 1985, is a parody of the museological display. Fabricated and found objects, labeled as ‘sociofacts’ or ‘scientifacts’, and various other absurdist artifacts, purport to give an ethnographic account of traditional Indian life. When consumed by the necrophilous codes of the museum this life is assumed to be safely contained in the distant past. In some respects the unnamed generic Indian of the On Loan... exhibit is a non-self-portrait. As in the sculpture Self Portrait, 1986, this ‘other’ body, emptied of real substance, is no more than the sum of vacuous inscriptions written by a language incapable of translating concepts alien to it.
However, from the lugubrious grimace of the dead Indian emanate the murmurings of a reanimated corpse: being doubly other - a dead sign - the Native American can potentially be resurrected into whatever form he dreams. In Durham’s imagery, visual or verbal, an abyssal infolding takes place between life and death such that the one perpetually generates the other. A death that gives life is perhaps not perceptible in the group of sculptures based on animal skulls. Bedecked with feathers, turquoise inlay, trade beads and urban detritus, these corpses of a world discarded by Western culture are reclaimed into a wholly other dimension of experience. If such works may be described as sacred it is not in the European sense of the supernatural, but as an honouring of the essential qualities of things. Like Durham's poetry the sculptures are invocations; but when the ‘song’ becomes audible, as in the audio-play, A Few Words Exchanged at Charleston, 1988, we encounter our own terror of difference.
There is no comfort to be had from the recognizable signs of ‘Indianness’ that appear in this work, for they are on one level, so many booby-traps set by the Coyote Trickster to trip us on our own fantasies. Indian tradition is not to be found in the kinds of superficial signs promoted by white tourism, but in subtle processes of thought. Nor is it to be sought in the white man’s fictions of history. When Durham invokes the past, as in the Matt’s Gallery installation, history is exposed as a miscellany of discontinuous recorded facts where one set of combinations can be as valid as another according to one's perspective. If there is something disturbing in this transgressive game it is because, rather than the deliberate inversion of accepted rules familiar to European modernism, the rules themselves are placed under erasure. As a consequence, in Durham's work, the points by which the viewer is mapped into a field of discourse as a coherent subject are not given according to a Western orthodoxy. Durham’s connections are not based on an imminent causality. There is, for instance, no historical relationship, as we understand it, between Pocahontas or Attakulakula. The inner logic of the artist’s process is not linear but tangential; its operation is to seek out nodes of resistance, to make oblique connections. The effect of this non-rationalism on the viewer is a fall into difference - into a sense of our own otherness or discontinuity within the discursive field presented.
Durham is an ‘archivist’ in the Foucauldian sense: his concern is not with a history of effects and causes but with the function of a statement - on racial difference - as it circulates through relations of power and the forms of exchange that inscribe the contact between disparate cultures. The process is transformative - it releases an unbounded laughter, when, in the face of the unspeakable horrors of a cynical authority, we may have expected the menacing tones of pure hatred. Durham’s sense of humor is truly diabolical and far from being pacifying to our ears; it is the jubilation of one who has snatched life from the jaws of those who would seek to destroy it. It is a humor that plays not on what can be thought - a matter of order and control - but on what can be dreamt, on what refuses to be forgotten; and as such is an echo of the uncharted and disturbing territory of the real.