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Jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World

Lyndon J Linklater – Indigenous Relations Advisor

World renowned artist Jimmie Durham’s exhibition At the Center of the World runs at Remai Modern March 25 to August 12, 2018. As with many successful global artists, Jimmie is not without controversy. One such controversy is with respect to his disputed Indigenous ancestry.

In September 2017, Remai Modern released a press release recognizing this issue that reads in part: 

Durham’s retrospective exhibition has reactivated longstanding debate surrounding his self-identification as Cherokee and his refusal to be categorized as a Cherokee artist. We acknowledge that Durham does not belong to any of the federally recognized and historical Cherokee Tribes in the United States, which as sovereign nations determine their own citizenship.”

In Canada, we have used the following terms: Indians (Red, North American, Treaty, Status and Non-Status), Half Breeds, Métis, Natives, First Nations and Aboriginals. These terms are not as easy to understand because they have complex legal implications that are not easily explained. As well, who determines their meaning? Again, this is difficult to understand. Most recently, the term Indigenous is regularly used to include all of these groups.

At Remai Modern, we are aware of concerns that may arise with respect to Jimmie’s identity. We are also aware of those who support his identification as a Cherokee, a group that includes Indigenous people. At the same time, we also respect the Cherokee Nations who do not acknowledge his claim.

Generally speaking, Indigenous peoples have always been giving and welcoming to visitors. Indigenous Elders are wise, kind, respectful and have powerful skills in thought, observation and listening. I recently spoke with Sákéj Henderson, a professor at the Native Law Centre of Canada (someone I call an Elder). In the 1970s and 1980s, Sákéj worked with Jimmie through the Working Group on Indigenous Populations, which helped draft the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Henderson always appreciated Durham’s commitment and art. He said Jimmie always stood in solidarity with Indigenous peoples. While he said he had no knowledge about, or opinion on, his identity as a Cherokee, he understood that self-identification as a Cherokee is as problematic as any official lists of different nations and tribes in North America.

He said “Everyone is still recovering from the traumatic harm of federal control deciding who is a member of a nation and who is not. It was only in 1976 that the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma was reinstated as a self-governing nation pursuant to a court decision, after generations of its members had been separated in different parts of the North Carolina and the southwest.”

He also said “the sources of art are many, not isolated to heritage or personal identity but to vision and creativity. Jimmie’s art speaks in many voices and traditions; that is what is important about his life and the inner energy of his art.”

The reason we are showcasing Jimmie’s work is because he is a brilliant artist and his work needs to be shared. We ask that people respect our thoughtful decision to exhibit his work because we believe it is not the role of the museum to make determinations on an artist’s identity. Instead, we offer a forum for discussion where all perspectives on this issue are respected. As per our vision: Remai Modern is a thought leader and direction-setting art museum that boldly collects, develops, presents and interprets the art of our time. Our mandate is to enable transformative experiences by connecting art with local and global communities.

Lyndon J Linklater
Indigenous Relations Advisor
Remai Modern