Walker’s Latest Controversy with Native American Community Members: How Will it Embrace the Moment?

Jimmie Durham (Visual Artist, Berlin/Rome) Wikimedia Commons.

The Walker Art Center is once again getting questioned about its ability, or inability, to engage with Native artists and Native communities.

This time it involves the exhibit: “Jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World,” which opened June 22. MPR’s story: Walker faces new Native art controversy, says Durham identifies as Cherokee heritage, a fact disputed by enrolled members of the Cherokee nation. “… his critics say he is not Native, and is hurting artists who are.”

Issues of identity and “who is Indian” raise thorny questions. It’s easy to get sidelined in those questions and ignore the bigger one. The issue here is the same as with Scaffold.  Does the Walker have inclusive and representative staffing in place — and the ability to listen to Native voices and collaborate with Native artists on these issues?

I am less interested in whether or not Durham is Cherokee as I am with how the Walker engages in the conversation about whether or not Durham is Cherokee — including various  Native perspectives on that question. Will the Walker seize this moment for a more robust engagement with Native artists, elders, and communities? Will it continue to engage after the Durham exhibit leaves, or will the conversation disappear like invisible ink?

Earlier this year, the Walker was trying to figure out how to address the controversy around Scaffold, a newly acquired piece for the Sculpture Garden. A commentary on capital punishment, Scaffold prominently featured a replica of the gallows used to hang 38 Dakota men following the 1862 Dakota-U.S. War. Sam Durant, a white artist, created the work. It drew strong criticism from the Dakota community and elders. The work represented perhaps the worst day in their history and they had no involvement in the process. The Walker began conversations with Dakota leaders; at their request, it removed the sculpture.

The Durham retrospective was organized by the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. The Walker is its second stop.

This exhibit was in the works before the Scaffold controversy happened. However, the Walker knew the Durham exhibit would be controversial. According to the MPR story:

Some Minnesota-based Native artists approached the Walker last year with concerns about the Durham show. One was choreographer Rosy Simas, who has presented work at the Walker. She is Seneka. She says there are very few visual arts shows by Native artists at the Walker.

“It has always been very heartbreaking to never see myself reflected in the work there,” she said.

Then, just two days prior to the Walker’s opening, there was another meeting with  Simas and Dyani White Hawk (Lakota), another artist, according to the Star Tribune story: Walker Art Center exhibit raising new questions from American Indian artists. They met with the Walker’s executive director, the exhibit’s curator as well as the senior curator from Hammer. White Hawk was quoted as saying the officials “made substantial time for us and seemed to be genuinely listening.”

Healing Minnesota Stories asked the Walker a series of questions:

  • What if any follow up happened after last year’s meeting with Simas (and other artists)?
  • What if anything will come out of the June 20 meeting?
  • Has the Walker had any more internal conversations about how to address the larger institutional issues Scaffold raised?

Here is the email, reprinted in full, from Meredith Kessler, Walker’s assistant director of public relations:

With 50 years of artistic practice Jimmie Durham is regarded as one of the most important, globally-recognized artists working today. He is a multidisciplinary artist whose work includes sculpture, painting, drawing, performance, poetry and writing – influencing a generation of artists behind him. This long-awaited exhibition is his first solo show in the U.S. in over 20 years; it was organized by the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and travels to the Walker, the Whitney in New York, and Remai Modern in Saskatoon.

The Walker has long been aware of the issues and community concerns surrounding the artist and his work. Over the last year the Walker has engaged and will continue to engage with individual members of the Native community. Throughout the exhibition period we are open to publishing and hosting discussions around Native sovereignty and identity issues. Following recent conversations, we added a note to the introductory exhibition text in the gallery and online: ‘While Jimmie Durham self-identifies as Cherokee, he is not recognized by any of the three Cherokee Nations, which as sovereign nations determine their own citizenship. We recognize that there are Cherokee artists and scholars who reject Durham’s claims of Cherokee ancestry.’

The Walker’s description of the artist respects his preference for how he chooses to self-identify. We understand that Jimmie Durham has supporters and detractors because of his Cherokee ancestry claim. We respect both points of view and welcome conversation about the complex set of issues that public response to the exhibition might elicit.”

Comment: This email doesn’t respond to the question about the impact of last year’s meeting. It doesn’t respond to the question of what next steps might be.

The email says the Walker has “long been aware of the issues and community concerns surrounding the artist [Durham] and his work.” Yet I am still unclear about what if anything the Walker did with this knowledge. According to Kessler’s email, it was only “following recent conversations” the Walker decided to add a note about the controversy to the exhibition text. That seems like a bare minimum response.

The Walker’s response also seems cautious. The email said: “Throughout the exhibition period we are open to publishing and hosting discussions around Native sovereignty and identity issues.” The Walker doesn’t say it will host discussions, just that it is “open” to them. And why limit discussion around Native sovereignty and identity issues to just this exhibit?

Compare Walker’s response to White Hawk’s hopes for next steps. Here is an excerpt from her Facebook post following the June 20 meeting:

This conversation is so important. Not because of Durham himself. But because U.S. history, tribal/federal government relations, and the lack of education and exposure for mainstream Americans to Native history, tribes and communities today support this as a possibility.  …

I sincerely hope that the happenings around the Scaffold piece and this exhibition create enough talk and examination that we could utilize these moments to genuinely move the dialogue forward…in the art world and beyond.

It is my hope that the institutions involved boldly take on these important conversations. That they invite Native people to openly, honestly and whole-hardheartedly speak about their experiences and how such exhibitions (despite well-meaning intentions) actually support colonization.

Durham self portrait, 1986 (Photo by Mark B. Schlemmer: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mbschlemmer/18620500888

A Conversation around “Identity”

What could a conversation around Native identity look like at the Walker? I will offer a few nuggets from articles I’ve read.

It could start with biography. Durham is one-quarter Cherokee and grew up in a home speaking Cherokee, according to a story in HyperAllergic: Jimmie Durham Retrospective Reignites Debate Over His Claim of Native Ancestry. It affected his art, such as the self portrait at right.

Further, Durham was deeply involved in the American Indian Movement here in the 1970s. According to a 2016 story in Indian Country Today, Durham worked as an AIM political organizer from 1973-1980, and was a member of AIM’s Central Council.

However, Durham hasn’t been to the United States for more than 20 years.

Durham never tried to enroll in a Cherokee tribe, according to the MPR story, “saying he objects to what he sees as an oppressive government system.”

That “oppressive government system” could lead to conversations about U.S. “blood quantum laws“. These identified Native Americans by the percentage of Native American blood from their parents and ignored traditional ways that Native Americans identify themselves.

An email exchange with a friend who is Dakota provided other insights about Native identity.

Indian identity is a complicated thing. Indians do not define themselves solely as individuals but, instead, as members of families and communities whose personal identity is inextricably linked to others. Therefore, people come to be recognized for their talents through a collective process that requires observation and endorsement by multiple others over time, as well as dedication, patience and humility by the individual.

At the end of the day, Indian people know who is Indian – they have clear family kinship ties and they also GIVE BACK TO THEIR COMMUNITY in some way. …

State Control of Identity

The conversation could include how identity is fluid. For example, the U.S. Census is constantly changing how it allows people to self-identify by race.

According to an L.A. Times review of the exhibit, Durham has tried to make light of state control of his identity, referring to himself as “a full-blooded contemporary artist” and a member of the tribe of sculptors.

At the same time, the state did have control over Durham’s identity, specifically through the Indian Arts and Crafts Act (IACA) signed by President George H.W. Bush. The law imposed a five-year prison sentences plus fines up to $250,000 on people selling Indian art without being a certified tribal member, the Times story said.

Ultimately, Durham had to change his bio, according to the story in HyperAllergic:

In a 1993 article, Jonathan Tilove of the Newhouse News Service, wrote that following the passage of the IACA, two galleries in Santa Fe and San Francisco canceled Durham shows. Following those events, Geoffrey Stamm, assistant general manager of the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, “warned that when enforcement begins, ‘if Jimmie Durham is selling art work as a Cherokee and he does not have certification from the tribe, he will be arrested,’” Tilove wrote. “Durham apparently took the threat seriously. He has since written Art in America citing the law and declaring, ‘I am not an American Indian.’”

Returning to the Walker, perhaps the question is best phrased this way: What kind of identity does the Walker want to have in the community? How will it engage in these questions?

Its mission statement offers direction:

… Walker programs examine the questions that shape and inspire us as individuals, cultures, and communities.

The key question about the mission statement, then, is, how does the Walker define “us” and does “us” include Native Americans?

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