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"The Word for World and the Word for History Are the Same"
JIMMIE DURHAM, THE AMERICAN INDIAN MOVEMENT, AND SPATIAL THINKING
Space, Not Identity
In 1990, the Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art, the New Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Studio Museum of Harlem opened an unprecedented collaborative exhibition. The Decade Show: Frameworks of Identity in the 1980s signaled the arrival of previously marginalized black, Chicano, Native American, feminist, queer, and other artists at the center of the New York art world. Many on the exhibition's roster of seventy artists have since become familiar names in contemporary art history: David Hammons, the Guerrilla Girls, Ana Mendieta, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Lorna Simpson, Fred Wilson, and James Luna. An essay by Jimmie Durham is among fourteen included in the catalogue. As the title of the show hints, institutional validation fixed the terms of the artists' arrival. Curator Sharon F. Patton explained, "The artists analyze their own culture, cultural heritage, and ethnicity to invert the perceived tyranny of an imposed Eurocentric, male identity. ... Typically, the art engages the viewer in a discussion about who we are, how others define who we are, and how we define ourselves." The varied work of a decade appeared inside and thereafter affirmed "frameworks of identity." While the circulation of postidentity phrases in the 2000s signals identity's fall from grace, especially among a younger generation of art professionals, "postblack," "post-Indian," and even "postfeminism" serve to anchor identity politics all the more firmly in the art of the past. The temporal schema of the "post-" joins forces with The Decade Show to stabilize meaning in hindsight.
The Decade Show curators' central argument sits uneasily with Durham's long-standing claim, reiterated to me in an email in 2012: "In the '80s none of us ever discussed our identity, made art about our identity, or used the term. In other words, it was used later, against us." An activist, artist, and writer, Durham resigned as director of the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC) of the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the summer of 1979 and turned seriously to making art in New York City. His "us" reflects the heterogeneity of his artistic community on the Lower East Side, which included Wilson and Hammons, as well as a geographically diffuse network of indigenous artists, especially in the United States and Canada. This chapter is devoted to reassessing Durham's formative role within the latter group, which I call the "AIM generation" to emphasize shared historical and conceptual terrain, rather than a cohesive or contested identity. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, Durham exhibited alongside, collaborated with, and wrote about the work of fellow indigenous artists. He profoundly impacted a discourse about Native American art and settler colonialism long after he moved to Mexico in 1987 and to Europe in 1994, at which point he cut his ties to U.S. institutions. Although identity politics undoubtedly shaped many practices of the period, such a framework is inadequate to account for the AIM generation's overlapping political and aesthetic concerns in the wake of organized resistance. Taking Durham's provocation seriously, I dislodge identity from its stable location in recent art history in order to invigorate, rather than remove, the grounds for alliances. In addition to reframing a body of work primarily from the 1980s, this chapter charts continuities between Durham's work in the United States and abroad, against prevailing assumptions that he went into exile.
Specifically, I map the vectors of a spatial politics anchored in lessons from AIM. Material and symbolic struggles on behalf of occupied lands distinguished AIM from African American and other civil rights movements and affected the trajectory of many subsequent artistic practices. Key works by the AIM generation in the 1980s and 1990s addressed the world-shaping legacies of some five centuries of colonization in the Americas, encompassing dominant institutions and practices that designated certain people, places, and things "Indian." I argue that there was far more at play than spatial metaphors such as "centers" and "margins" and "insiders" and "outsiders," frequently invoked in the 1980s to describe the institutionalized segregation of identities. Durham's practice in particular reconnected figurative uses of space to the territorial underpinning of colonization across the Americas and explored the ongoing implications for relationships among all humans and the environments on which we depend. His project reflected a form of spatial thinking that recognized, in the words of geographer Doreen Massey, "space as the product of interrelations ... relations which are necessarily embedded material practices which have to be carried out." Durham's work and words conveyed with unusual clarity the predicament of indigenous peoples displaced by occupation while insisting that colonialism, far from a minority issue, is a problem that concerns the entirety of our shared world.
Still, it is not incidental that Durham's art, along with much creative work of the AIM generation, ceded to the misapprehension of a solipsistic politics of identity. Media images of AIM foreshadowed this slippage, which was repeated in the discourse surrounding the trickster, a sacred miscreant and social critic drawn from indigenous cultural precedents who made regular appearances in AIM-generation art, literature, and criticism. The trickster of the 1980s and 1990s promised to unite elements of Native American philosophy and postmodern theory to emancipatory ends. Yet she inadvertently consigned colonized peoples to displacement without end, a disempowering scenario that was ultimately packaged and celebrated as another romantic identity. In a haunting essay from 1988 entitled "The Ground Has Been Covered," quoted at the outset of this book, Durham described an impasse for indigenous peoples that extended from the loss of their lands to the very terms of their representation in the late twentieth century. His perspective was reinforced by the passage of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 (IACA), which resulted in the cancellation of two solo shows of his work on the eve of the Columbus Quincentennial.
I end the chapter with a close reading of Mataoka Ale Attakulakula Anel Guledisgo Hnihi (Pocahontas and the Little Carpenter in London), a large-scale multimedia installation that Durham made in London in 1988, shortly after relocating to Mexico. This little-known artwork negotiates the impasse that befell spatial thinking in the wake of AIM by reopening a historical dimension, wedding the artist's transatlantic journey to those of the Algonquian "princess" Pocahontas in 1616 and the Cherokee delegate Attakulakula in 1730. Mataoka Ale Attakulakula Anel Guledisgo Hnihi forms a bridge between Durham's critique of the Americas as "covered ground" and an expansive, affirmative conception of history as world anchored in Cherokee language and carpentry, marking a substantial early contribution to the framework of undivided earth that will preoccupy me for the remainder of this book. The installation prepares us to recognize the recent work of AIM-generation artists abroad not as a linear development toward a postidentity future, but as a reintroduction to modernity's shared ground.
La poursuite du bonheur and Modernist Exile
By way of introducing the spatial preoccupations evident in Durham's early activism, writing, and art, I begin with another retrospective. In 2002, in the countryside near his studio in Rome, Durham filmed a parody of a "spaghetti western" (plates 1–12). The short narrative video, La poursuite du bonheur (The Pursuit of Happiness), introduces viewers via subtitles to Joe Hill, an "American Indian artist, probably of Shoshone or Paiute origin" living somewhere in the western United States. Accompanied by a wordless soundtrack of epic music, the taciturn protagonist (played by Albanian artist Anri Sala) strides across polluted fields and highways, collecting roadkill, discarded plastic, and other detritus. He turns these into collages, which he exhibits at an anonymous gallery for an audience of cowboys, whereupon he pockets a wad of cash, lights his dilapidated trailer on fire, and boards a flight to France. A shot of the airplane disappearing into a blue sky acts as the punch line to a dark thirteen-minute joke: For Joe, "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," the tri-part promise of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, leads inexorably to emigration. Read against The Decade Show's preoccupations with identity, La poursuite du bonheur shifts our attention toward a complex and shifting spatial politics that concerned Durham before, during, and after AIM.
To begin, Durham cast "an American Indian artist" in the role of exile, a classic modernist trope premised on the conceit of leaving one's identity behind along with one's homeland. The conflation cancels an entrenched colonial binary of static indigenes and mobile Europeans, along with any romance we may have invested in such categories. In Edward Said's classic formulation, "Modern Western culture is in large part the work of exiles, emigres, refugees" who have sought to transform an "unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place ... into a potent, even enriching, motif." Caren Kaplan concisely summarized the exile's attributes: "singularity, solitude, estrangement, alienation and aestheticized excisions of location. ... The 'artist in exile' is never 'at home,' always existentially alone, and shocked by the strain of displacement into significant experimentations and insights." Said found that dislocations wrought by warfare, totalitarian regimes, and other, violent forms of nationalism were so ubiquitous in the twentieth century that exile can no longer serve celebratory notions of humanism. Kaplan gave us reason to doubt that such a wish was ever warranted. The singular, transcendent experience of exile treats attachments to community, place, and shared history as anachronisms. The exilic subject nonetheless imagines he (it is nearly always a "he") can access a surrogate home through his union with non-European lands and peoples, representing the premodern past habitable as a foreign place. Exile and colonialism turn out to be ideological bedfellows. In La poursuite du bonheur, we are reminded that a European fantasy of starting fresh in the "New World," a deep colonial subtext shared by the Declaration of Independence and spaghetti westerns, conditions Joe's displacement. His own "native place" is a derelict trailer near a polluted roadway, reflecting the devastating poverty and contamination on many Native American reservations in the twentieth century. Not unlike his modernist predecessors, Joe seeks aesthetic recompense for an experience of loss and fragmentation by collaging roadkill and detritus. Far from redemptive, however, his act merely satisfies his cowboy collectors' romantic stereotypes about Indians in exchange for cold cash. As he reverses the path of countless European exiles from "New World" to "Old," he comes to represent the endgame of colonialism, a figure of indigenous displacement without end.
But La poursuite du bonheur also points us toward activist alliances as an alternative to solitary exile. Joe shares his name with the train-hopping poet and musician Joe Hill, who emigrated from Sweden to the United States in 1902. Hill became a renowned activist on behalf of migrant labor rights, only to be convicted of murder on scanty evidence and executed in 1915. La poursuite du bonheur's extradiegetic coda wraps both Joes into a transhistorical and transnational community with others. The credits roll across an outdoor gathering at what looks like a French café — an Italian restaurant supplies the stand-in — where a beretclad Durham sits talking over espresso with Sala and friends. Here the pretense of a 1960s Sergio Leone western gives way to the reflexivity of another genre of the decade, cinema verité. The coda calls to mind a famous café scene from Victor Morin and Jean Rouch's experimental documentary Chronique d'un été (Chronicle of a Summer, 1960), in which Morin sits with his cast at Totem, the restaurant of the colonial Musée de l'Homme in Paris. Marceline, a Holocaust survivor; Landry, a student from Côte d'Ivoire; and other leftist intellectuals discuss decolonization in Africa and painful memories of Auschwitz. In my reading, La poursuite du bonheur, like Chronique d'un été, turns the ethnographic lens upon Paris, revealing distant "others" — a Cherokee, an Albanian — present at the café table. Perhaps they, too, participate in heterogeneous political alliances in place of exilic estrangement.
La poursuite du bonheur's credits finally direct us to 2002, to the scene of retrospection. More than forty years after Chronique d'un été, we must consider the possibility that artistic itinerancy, rather than political exigency, conditioned Sala and Durham's collaboration. They could well be sipping espresso during a Parisian layover on the contemporary biennial circuit, where both have been warmly applauded in recent decades. A woman reads the newspaper Le Monde at a nearby table, recalling the headlines detailing decolonization struggles in Africa that flashed across the screen introducing Chronique d'un été's café gathering. But today's biennial artists are more likely to be privileged itinerants, buffered from violent inequalities detailed in the news. Echoing Kaplan's critique of exile, T. J. Demos wrote, "Nomadism suggests a contemporary neoprimitivism, one that subscribes to a fantasy of freedom from all attachments, but which cruelly operates in a system that denies that freedom to the very itinerant peoples from whom it borrows its name." Today's mega-exhibitions, featuring exceptional, border-hopping artists, tend to celebrate cultural inclusivity while obscuring the millions for whom globalization means dispossession and dislocation. Holding these vectors together without resolving the tensions between them, La poursuite du bonheur maps conceptual interdependencies among modernist exile, colonial displacement, transnational activism, and privileged nomadism. Native Americans come with the territory: coerced, unwitting, or willing participants in multiple forms of mobility that constitute a contested modernity shared with Europeans since 1492.
Lessons from the American Indian Movement
Durham's own trajectory is a lived variant of La poursuite du bonheur's spatial concerns. He was born in Arkansas, related to Wolf Clan Cherokee who headed west before the deadly Trail of Tears in 1838, when the federal government forcibly relocated a majority of remaining Cherokee from their homeland in the southeastern United States to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). Parts of Durham's childhood were spent in Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma as his father searched for work. He dropped out of high school at age sixteen, worked for ranchers in New Mexico, and completed four years of service with the U.S. military. Throughout, he joined Native activists in the Southwest, but reports that by the late 1960s he "thought that it was all hopeless." In 1968, the year that AIM was formally established in Minneapolis, Durham followed friends to Geneva. He enrolled in the free École des Beaux-Arts and secured a visa and summer studio space in France. He wrote, "I left for Europe, seriously thinking never to come back. I thought to be an artist in Switzerland, and write poems about love and my nightmares and my sordid past." The attraction of what he called "becoming European" was the promise of a liberating abstraction, away from the poverty and racism experienced by many Native Americans in the United States.
But as news of decolonization struggles in the United States and elsewhere in the Americas reached Geneva, his fantasy of exile was undercut by guilt. Durham wrote, "In a bar in Geneva I met Indians from South America who were doing the same thing. We all accused each other of being empty leeches." His dabbles in modernist painting also became a cause for concern: "How can the world use abstract shapes? Only [Mark] Rothko could be romantic and self-involved enough to carry it off." Heeding a sense of responsibility to the indigenous political situation in the Americas, Durham began organizing international support for AIM in Europe. His apartment was a meeting space for African liberationists and "Indians in exile"; instead of a "Cherokee trying to be European," he became, in his words, "a Third World internationalist." Prompted by AIM events in 1973, Durham returned to the United States. From 1974 to 1979 he ran the movement's New York office as a fundraiser and founding director of the IITC, seeking international allies to support treaty rights granting Native communities autonomy from the U.S. government. He traveled regularly to Geneva, this time as an AIM representative to the United Nations (UN). It is in this context that Durham met his lifelong partner and collaborator, Brazilian-born artist and activist Maria Thereza Alves, who volunteered for the IITC in 1978.
Excerpted from "Art For An Undivided Earth"
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Table of ContentsList of Illustrations ix
1. The Word for World and the Word for History Are the Same: Jimmie Durham, the American Indian Movement, and Spatial Thinking 16
2. Now That We Are Christians We Dance for Ceremony: James Luna, Performing Props, and Sacred Space 61
3. They Sent Me Way Out in the Foreign Country and Told Me to Forget It: Fred Kabotie, Dance Memories, and the 1932 U.S. Pavilion of the Venice Biennale 94
4. Dance Is the One Activity That I Know Of When Virtual Strangers Can Embrace: Kay WalkingStick, Creative Kinship, and Art History's Tangled Legs 123
5. They Advanced to the Portraits of Their Friends and Offered Them Their Hands: Robert Houle, Ojibwa Tableaux Vivants, and Transcultural Materialism 152
Epilogue: Traveligng with Stones 184
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