The Proust Questionnaire: Jimmie Durham

The Proust Questionnaire started as Late Victorian parlour game, aimed at revealing key aspects of a person’s character. While still in his teens, author Marcel Proust answered a similar series of questions with such enthusiasm that, when the manuscript containing his original answers was discovered in 1924, his name became permanently associated with this type of informal interview.


Photo: jef byttebier/het pakt 

Jimmie Durham is an American-born essayist, poet and sculptor. Over the years, the politically active artist has worked extensively within the U.S. Civil Rights movement and with the American Indian Movement, along with other organizations devoted to the rights of First Peoples.

His first solo art exhibition was in Austin, Texas in 1968, and the following year he moved to Geneva, Switzerland to study art. By the early 1980s, when he was based in New York City, he was producing edgy yet witty sculptures challenging conventional representations of North America’s First Peoples.

After moving to Cuernavaca, Mexico in 1987, Durham continued to exhibit frequently, while also publishing volumes of poetry and essays. By 1994, he had again relocated—this time to Europe—where he has lived ever since.

Over the past three decades, Durham’s work has been exhibited in prestigious venues around the world, including the Whitney Biennial, documenta (9), documenta (13),  and the Venice Biennale, and was featured as part of the blockbuster 2013 exhibition Sakahan: International Indigenous Art at the National Gallery of Canada. He has also been the curator of a number of exhibitions, including The American West: an attack on traditional Cowboy-and-Indian mythology.

Much of Durham’s work combines found objects and sculptural constructions with text that encourages the viewer to respond in a highly personal way. His work can be found in private and public collections around the world—including the National Gallery of Canada—as well as public spaces such as the banks of the Loire River in Indre, France: home to his Serpentine rouge since 2009.


Your earliest memory of art:

I grew up making things: toys, tools, traps, slingshots. But my first memory of art came later, when I was about 25 years old. I went to see a show by Claes Oldenburg.

When you knew this would become your vocation:

I have never really known that I was an artist. I write poetry and prose, sing when I drink too much.

Your greatest influence:

Maria Thereza Alves is certainly my greatest influence. We have been together since 1978, and we talk and work together all the time. She is perceptive and critical.

Occupation you would have chosen (other than art):

I have no formal education, and had no chance for one. But if I had, I would have liked to be a biologist, ecologist.

Favourite pastime (other than art):

I am a fanatical gardener.

Favourite artist:

My favourite artist is really Maria Thereza Alves. 

Favourite writer and musician/composer:

My favourite writer is Italo Calvino. Favourite musician is sometimes Nusrat Fati Ali Khan, sometimes Ali Farka Touré.

Favourite colour, flower and bird:

Probably any way that maize is prepared is my favourite, maybe as hominy. Colour: red. Bird: robin when I am in Europe; hummingbird in the Americas. 

Favourite food and drink:

Favourite food and drink . . . impossible to say. Depends on the time of day.

Favourite smell and sound:

The same is true for smell and sound. But the far-off sound of a freight train when I was about to go to sleep as a child still stays in my brain.

Favourite object:

I cannot imagine a favourite object. I am rich with objects, in love with all of them.

Favourite environment or landscape:

As for environments, the same must be true. Even more true for words; I love them all in any language, and do not take them as seriously as they demand.

Pet peeve:

I do not like for people to not pick up after themselves.

Your definition of happiness:

I do not know so much about myself as to know what might be good or bad, so I think little about happiness.

Ideal place to live:

I love living on this planet, and consider myself extremely lucky.

A recurring dream:

A recurring dream involves an almost real strange place, with water, creatures, human neighbourhoods that seem almost familiar.

One wish:

I wish I had less physical pain.

Aspirations before you die:

I would like to stay alive.

To me art is: 

To me art is far away from definitions.


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