Dossier | Jimmie Durham: Decentring the World | esse arts + opinions

Dossier | Jimmie Durham: Decentring the World

  • Jimmie Durham, Building a Nation, installation view, Matt’s Gallery, Londres, 2006. Photo: Maria Thereza Alves
  • Jimmie Durham, The History of Europe, installation detail, documenta (13), Kassel, 2012. Photo: Rosa Maria Rühling

Jimmie Durham: Decentring the World
By Jean-Philippe Uzel

At the heart of Jimmie Durham’s work as an artist, poet, and essayist — but also within his engagement as an Aboriginal activist and defender of civil rights — lies a simple premise: that geography has always conditioned politics, even though politics has forever acted as if geography didn’t exist and as though no spatial boundary could impede its actions. (1)

The eclipsing of geography by politics has been characterized not only by the colonial expansionism of nation-states and their voracious appropriation of “virgin territories” on the backs of Indigenous populations since the sixteenth century, but also by a biased representation of geography, such as the one that makes us believe that Europe is a continent. From this perspective, Durham’s artworks can be perceived as a desire to restore geography to its rightful primary position in relation to politics.

Against Nation-states
Few artists can compare with Durham in terms of legitimacy when it comes to broaching geopolitical questions. In 1973, he interrupted his art career to become a member of the Central Council of the American Indian Movement (AIM) following the violent events at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, during which AIM militants clashed with the U.S. army and the FBI. It was as a representative of AIM that he became involved in the United Nations (UN), where he served as director of the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC), the first non-governmental organization to represent Indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere. And it was within the IITC that the idea for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was born; a declaration which, thirty years later, would be adopted by the UN General Assembly. Yet in the 1970s, Durham made the bitter observation that Indigenous peoples — whose point in common was that none belonged to a nation-state — were not being heard on the international scene. Disillusioned by politics, Durham left the UN in 1980 to return to his art practice. Thereafter, his body of written and visual work would be marked by his experience of diplomacy and international relations. In a recent essay, (2) he recalls certain comical situations that he encountered within the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and takes the opportunity to expose the hypocrisy prevalent within an organization in which states willingly discuss international “human rights” as long as they don’t interfere with their “internal affairs.”

Since he moved to Europe in 1994, Durham’s written and visual work has focused on the birth of nation-states and the master narratives that serve to justify them. These narratives are constructed on a staggering subversion of the geographic and political order: that of the myth of the “Promised Land.” Colonists arriving in a new territory have always claimed that it belongs to them, as it was promised to them by God. And it belongs to them even more because it is supposedly uninhabited. Consequently, in their eyes, anyone living in the territory — that is, the Indigenous peoples — can only be foreigners who have come from elsewhere. This unprecedented symbolic violence, as Durham clearly underlines, (3) is expressed largely through language. It is a matter of saying to “others” that they are foreigners, that they originated somewhere else, like the “American Indians” who allegedly came from India and were living on a continent named after a European (Amerigo Vespucci).

Durham has devoted much attention to the “master narrative” of the United States, which justified the near total annihilation of the First Nations. His most significant contribution to date has certainly been the exhibition The American West, which he curated with Richard W. Hill in 2005 at the Compton Verney Art Gallery and Park in England. The exhibition brought together historical documents, colonial works representing “how the West was won,” and works by contemporary Aboriginal artists (Kent Monkman, Edward Poitras, James Luna, among others) and Euro-American artists (including Ed Ruscha and Elaine Reichek) who revisit the myth of the West from a critical perspective. The following year, Durham pursued the same line of inquiry by presenting Building a Nation (2006) at Matt’s Gallery, London. The immense multimedia installation was constructed around racist statements made by individuals who have marked the history or imagination of the American nation (George Washington, David Crockett, John Wayne, and others). Yet it would be a mistake to believe that Durham is interested solely in the history of the nations that he calls “permanent colonies” (Canada, the United States, Australia, South Africa, for example). He has also produced several projects on the origins of European nations (including História concisa de Portugal [1995] and Maquette for a Museum of Switzerland [2011]) and on the “belief’ that leads us to conclude that Europe is a continent, despite the fact that any world map proves the contrary. (4) In the installation The History of Europe, presented in 2012 at Documenta in Kassel, he exhibited, in two glass display cases, a brief text summarizing eighty thousand years of European history (from the migration of Homo sapiens from Africa up to the Cold War), accompanied by two artefacts: a stone carved around forty thousand years ago and a damaged rifle bullet dating from 1941. This was an ironic way for the artist to question the technological advancements so revered by European civilization, but also to call into question the geographic limits of the supposed European continent that is nothing more than “a fat-looking peninsular protrusion on the west end of the continent of Eurasia.” (5)

The Centre of the World Is Everywhere
Since 1994, Jimmie Durham has declared that he lives in Eurasia. Far from the romantic meaning that it may have had for Joseph Beuys, this notion allows Durham to call into question the geographical falsification advocated by European politics: “I think this [Eurasia] is the proper continent to get lost on and I am in love with the continent mostly for that reason. You can get completely lost in this unknowably large place. But I also love the strange schizophrenic idea of a political entity [Europe] that calls itself a continent and a giant, magically large physical entity [Eurasia] that is not called a continent.” (6) Durham argues that the concept of Eurasia is in fact an “absurdity,” but a useful one that invites us to see things differently — to make us realize that geopolitics is constructed according to an arbitrary order that owes everything to politics but very little to geography. The will to see the geopolitical world of nation-states differently also finds expression in his radical questioning of the division between centre and periphery. This decentring strategy is perfectly embodied in the series of “poles marking the centre of the world,” which he began in 1995 in Brussels with Pole for the center of the World and Brussels (sic) and continued to develop in various locations around the world, from major urban centres, such as Berlin (2004), Gwangju (2004), and Winnipeg (2010), to more “peripheral” places, such as Yakutsk, Siberia (1995). Within this series, the exhibition The Center of the World or How to get at Chalma (1997) plays a particular role, first because it took place not in the village that it was referencing — Chalma, Mexico — but in Pori, Finland, and above all because it sheds light on the very origins of the project. While living in Mexico from 1987 to 1994, Durham discovered the existence of a place of pilgrimage in the village of Chalma, where a sacred tree, a several-hundred-year-old ahuahuete, has been venerated throughout the ages by Indigenous peoples that consider it to be the centre of the world. (7) Which, from a spatial perspective, is perfectly true: we are always, no matter where we are, at the centre of the world. There is also a Cherokee proverb that says, “I got there and I saw that half the world was before me and half the world was behind me.” (8) For the Pori exhibition, Durham had drawn on a giant map of the world a “possible route” linking Pori to Chalma, passing through Russia and North America. This poetic deviation across continents shows that we are always at the centre of the universe and that our relationship with space can escape the dictates of the prevailing political order.

This decentring of the world once again resonates with the personal history of Durham, who often describes himself as a homeless orphan at the heart of Eurasia. Durham in fact chose to leave the United States permanently in 1987 when he moved to Mexico. This image of the cosmopolitan aboriginal artist may evoke romantic undertones and be a little hackneyed — a fact that did not escape Durham, who made it the subject of a film, The Pursuit of Happiness (2002). This exile might also seem in conflict with his Aboriginal identity, which, by definition, relates “to the people and things that have been in a region since the earliest times,” (9) suggesting that they are not just passing through. Nevertheless, this expatriate identity, far from being chosen, was imposed on him from birth given that the Cherokee nation was deported from the west of Mississippi to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) in 1838, like all Aboriginal nations affected by the Indian Removal Act. (10) His choice to live and work in Eurasia can consequently be understood as a means of opposing the oppressive politics of nation-states and reappropriating his symbolic relationship with territory.

[Translated from the French by Louise Ashcroft]

(1) Jimmie Durham, “Eurasia” (2002), in Waiting To Be Interrupted (Milan/Anvers: Mousse Publishing/M HKA, 2014), 222.
(2) Jimmie Durham, “Against Internationalism,” Third Text 27, no. 1 (2013): 29 — 32.
(3) Jimmie Durham, “Cowboys and…,” Third Text 4, no. 12 (1990): 5 — 20.
(4) Jimmie Durham, “Belief in Europe” (2000), in Waiting To Be Interrupted, 177.
(5) Text by Jimmie Durham presented in the installation The History of Europe.
(6) Jimmie Durham, “Eurasia” (2002), in Waiting To Be Interrupted, 223.
(7) Nikos Papastergiadis and Laura Turney, On Becoming Authentic: Interview with Jimmie Durham (Cambridge: Ricky Pear Press, 1996), 26 — 27.
(8) Quoted by Jimmie Durham, Ibid., 27.
(9) Merriam-Webster Online, s.v. “aboriginal,” accessed November 2, 2015,
(10) Jimmie Durham, “Cherokee — United States Relations” (2005) in Waiting To Be Interrupted, 275 — 84.

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