Jimmie Durham: humanity is not a completed project | Room 9 & 10

Combining scaffolding, artificial grass and a plastic wading pool, El Salto (2016) recreates the view of a waterfall from the house where Durham and Maria Thereza Alves lived from 1987 to 1994 in the El Salto de San Anton neighbourhood of Cuernavaca in Mexico. The perspective of the scaffolding evokes a wider view, like that from atop the 40-metre tall waterfall overlooking vegetation and basalt rocks near the artist’s house: ‘When you’re up above normal things in a city, you get a funny feeling. It’s not like looking out a building’s window; it’s a little more freedom. It’s a safe freedom for me.’ The group of works Red deer (2017), Brown bear (2017), Musk ox (2017) incorporate animal skulls and found elements to represent some of the largest animals of Europe: ‘When I work with the skulls, I see very clearly how we really are all of the same family, I see that their skulls are like our skulls, their bodies are like our bodies,’ says Durham. This continuity between humans and non-humans is reflected in the group of graphite drawings made during his time as a fellow at German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) in Berlin, a renowned program for established artists working in the fields of visual arts, literature, film and music. They are a kind of visual diary combining everyday encounters with people and animals with portraits of figures from current affairs.


The pursuit of happiness (2002) takes as its point of departure a line from the American Declaration of Independence, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’. The film’s plot consists of four acts which tell the story of a young Indigenous artist from North America (played in the film by Albanian-French artist Anri Sala) who decides to leave the United States and gains success elsewhere. Durham himself has stated, ‘I was never an artist doing art as a way of representing some Indian-ness for sale… In New York and certainly in Europe, people have been surprised that I am a serious artist, that my art does not stop at the boundaries of identity struggles’. In the same section of the exhibition, the installation of painted oil drums featuring words taken from oil companies advertising, Sweet / Light / Crude (2009), raises the spectre of the U.S. government infiltration of Indigenous communities living on unceded lands to garner agreements on resource extraction.

Jimmie Durham: humanity is not a completed project, installation view of the exhibition at the Madre museum, 2023. Photo by Amedeo Benestante