Neighbors and Faith in Community

Artist Jimmie Durham’s Neapolitan Presepi

In: Religion and the Arts
Author: Andrea Feeser1
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  • 1 Clemson University
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Artist Jimmie Durham’s neighborhood and Madre Museum nativities (presepi) reflect his aesthetic: they are composed of found and gifted natural and manmade materials, bear marks of the artist’s making process, and take representational or abstracted forms that instantiate Durham’s ways of sensing and thinking. Made from what many would consider trash and shaped into sensitively-crafted, diverse-looking entities assembled alongside one another, Durham’s presepi communicate his ethics: care for and engagement with what is often overlooked, taken for granted, or disregarded. As with all of his work, the presepi respond to specific places, beings, and conditions; spark considered reflection; and encourage interaction that inspires better ways of living with others. Durham’s presepi do this in the context of Christian faith in Naples, but extend beyond this realm to model respectful interaction with difference in its many incarnations.


Artist Jimmie Durham’s neighborhood and Madre Museum nativities (presepi) reflect his aesthetic: they are composed of found and gifted natural and manmade materials, bear marks of the artist’s making process, and take representational or abstracted forms that instantiate Durham’s ways of sensing and thinking. Made from what many would consider trash and shaped into sensitively-crafted, diverse-looking entities assembled alongside one another, Durham’s presepi communicate his ethics: care for and engagement with what is often overlooked, taken for granted, or disregarded. As with all of his work, the presepi respond to specific places, beings, and conditions; spark considered reflection; and encourage interaction that inspires better ways of living with others. Durham’s presepi do this in the context of Christian faith in Naples, but extend beyond this realm to model respectful interaction with difference in its many incarnations.

As I watched artist Jimmie Durham peer into the large display case housing the nativity scene he created for his Naples neighborhood, I wondered how he decides where to place the new pieces he adds to it each Christmas season. Durham has made two nativities, called presepi in Italian (the singular is presepe or presepio), and in each the Holy Family, three kings, and shepherds appear where we expect to find them, while other figures surprise both in their placement and their nature (see figs. 1 and 2).


Figure 1

Jimmie Durham, Naples neighborhood presepe, ongoing. Variable dimensions, bone, cloth, Murano glass, paint, stone, wood

Citation: Religion and the Arts 23, 5 (2019) ; 10.1163/15685292-02305003

Collection of the artist

For example, in the presepe Durham produced for Naples’s Madre Museum of Contemporary Art, a large bear stands on a high precipice, and in his neighborhood nativity scene, two stones have barely visible facial features to make them appear somewhat human. Entities that are clearly identifiable, and others that are not, show up in both presepi in ways that startle and delight.

Unusual figures and setting elements are not uncommon in presepi: for some time Neapolitans have included people, creatures, and scenic components that reference their own historical and contemporary conditions. Presepi often have what are now typical pieces not found in nativity scenes in other parts of the world: architectural objects that recall the region’s ancient Greek and Roman past; food items and manufactures specific to Naples; shop owners, performers, and people plying their trades, with others enjoying their services; “exotic” personages from far off locales who once visited the city; and characters from folk tales and today’s popular culture (Bellenger and Romano) (fig. 3).


Figure 2

Jimmie Durham, Presepio, 2016. Acrylic, bone, cloth, Murano glass, paint, stone, wood

Citation: Religion and the Arts 23, 5 (2019) ; 10.1163/15685292-02305003

Collection of the artist, on loan to the Madre Museum of Contemporary Art

Durham embraces this additive dimension, and enlarges his neighborhood presepe each year by inserting into it more animals that he cares about and more people with whom he lives and works. These individuals—including courtyard cats—celebrate Durham’s growing presepe every holiday season at a party Durham and his fellow artist and partner Maria Thereza Alves host for their friends.

Durham’s neighborhood and Madre Museum presepi reflect his aesthetic: they are composed of found and gifted natural and manmade materials; bear marks of the artist’s making process; and take representational or abstracted forms that instantiate Durham’s ways of sensing and thinking. Through Durham’s eyes, in his mind, and with his hands, an animal bone becomes an angel, a stone becomes a woman with a basket of fruit, a strip of cloth becomes a fisherman’s net, and a chunk of glass becomes a king. Made from what many would consider trash and shaped into sensitively-crafted, diverse-looking entities assembled alongside one another, Durham’s presepi communicate his ethics: care for and engagement with what is often overlooked, taken for granted, or disregarded. As with all of his work, the presepi respond to specific places, beings, and conditions; spark considered reflection; and encourage interaction that inspires better ways of living with others. Durham’s presepi do this in the context of Christian faith in Naples, but extend beyond this realm to model respectful interaction with difference in its many incarnations.


Figure 3

Crèche, 1725–1775

Citation: Religion and the Arts 23, 5 (2019) ; 10.1163/15685292-02305003

The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago

1 Why Religion? Why Presepi?

Durham’s presepi exist for his neighbors far and near: he made his Madre Museum nativity for all the people of Naples and made and expands his neighborhood presepe for the specific people among whom he resides. Today, as in the past, there are good reasons to shun neighbors: in times of peace, they may provoke jealously because of what they have or disdain because of what they lack. In times of conflict, neighbors may betray and even murder to aggrandize or protect themselves. These scenarios have been and remain true of Naples. Over the centuries, many different peoples from the ancient to the modern world fought to control Naples, and battles for the city now rage among organized crime gangs (Langewiesche). Grave economic disparity and resistance to migrants sow further turmoil that sunders communities (Serenelli). A strong commitment to religion, despite misdeeds committed in its name, mitigates some disastrous failures of connection among residents of Naples. Most of the city’s people are Catholics and embrace Jesus’ message to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. They seek to uphold the commandment as they are able, as do their fellow Neapolitans of other religious or secular belief systems that advocate concern for others.

Durham is wary of all forms of belief, worldly and otherwise, for he sees that it often calcifies into exceptionalism in action that privileges some while harming many (Durham, Statement for the Exhibition A Shadow in Athens at Stigma Gallery, Athens). An activist in the United States, he experienced how “One nation, under God” does not promote “liberty and justice for all.” Durham participated in the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s, was a key figure in the 1970s American Indian Movement, and remains committed to social justice today. His art, writing, and interactions from those decades to the present examine the prejudice that accompanies unquestioned conviction. Durham often creates site-specific art, and has lived and worked in numerous places since leaving the United States in 1987. Wherever he has been and goes, he has engaged and continues to address beliefs and the problems they can occasion locally and globally. Some of his creations critique Christianity, most notably his The Testament According to John, 1989; Jesus (Es geht um die Wurst), 1992; Shrouds and Swaddling Clothes of Decommissioned Saints, 1996; and The Meat of Jesus, 2012.

These artworks investigate human realities often veiled in religious art, specifically death and sex, in ways that are confrontational and disturbing. Testament features a phallus-cannon uttering the first words of Genesis; Jesus depicts Christ with a red, erect penis and a photograph of a box containing a decaying animal; Shrouds consists of plastic buckets with dirty clothes and matted hair that seem to come from an open grave or filthy brothel; and Meat shows a kneeling boy receiving communion from a priest, positioned above him in a menacing stance that evokes the scandal of rape in the Catholic Church. In these pieces, Durham forcefully challenges the practice of sanitizing eros and thanatos in Christianity, suggesting that both make humanity in all of its capacities. He reveals the penis often hidden in religious art to make it evidence of Christ’s humanness, as well as a sign of sexual violence in the Bible and in the institutions that have grown up around it. Durham shows death’s rancid decay—elided in much Christian artwork—to point to lives cruelly taken in God’s name and also to emphasize the fundamental “base” materiality we all share and typically fear. Durham does not use lovely materials or pretty images to suggest that Christian belief protects from evil and ensures everlasting life. His “ugly” work shows that beautifying Christianity strips it of the sensuality and physicality that make it uncomfortably and sometimes horribly human.


Figure 4

Jimmie Durham, Jesus. Es geht um die Wurst [Jesus. It’s about the Sausage], 1992. Wood, iron, steel, ink, paper, acrylic, mud, glue

Citation: Religion and the Arts 23, 5 (2019) ; 10.1163/15685292-02305003

© Collection M HKA, Antwerp, Belgium

Although Testament, Jesus, Shrouds, and Meat indict dark aspects of Christianity, Jesus in particular enables us to see that the positive can accompany the negative when Durham contemplates religious ideology (fig. 4). In 2007, Durham created the drawing-statement “Humanity is not a Completed Project.” Jesus suggests that something worthy might emerge from our collective incompleteness. Durham bifurcated Christ’s face in the assemblage—he does this with many of his figures to show their different aspects—with one side covered in a mixture of dirt, blood, and glue, and the other a delicately-carved and painted lovely, brown face. This not only reminds viewers that Jesus had dark skin and not the white flesh he is typically portrayed as having in Western art, but also suggests that Christ went from “dust to dust” as we do. His ruined body—Durham placed a bone-like stick where one of Jesus’ feet should be and a large nail hole in one of the savior’s hands—demonstrates the decrepitude of all bodies, even of creatures other than us, for the photograph Jesus presents to viewers reveals a desiccated, dead animal, shrouded and entombed as Christ was and human dead often are. The mud that surrounds the little beast’s body, and that enrobes most of Jesus’ body too, begs the question of whether we rise up from the earth, but it does not suggest that we are swallowed up by it. We are of it, and Durham shows with his use of dirt itself that we can create something powerful from what we tend to brush away. He enables us to see an embodied, brown Christ and asks us to revere all animals, not humans alone. Christ’s red, erect penis in Durham’s artwork communicates this message with urgency: the German parenthetical title for the assemblage, Es geht um die Wurst, is a colloquial expression about sausage that means one must rise to a challenge right now and do one’s best because the stakes are high (Müser). With wicked humor that many may find offensive, Durham’s Jesus suggests that often devalued people and animals live and die at the very core of materiality, our shared source of creativity, and where the sacred may be found.

This respect for what is disregarded and impetus to create something uplifting with it was at the heart of Christ’s mission and that of St. Francis of Assisi, who modeled Jesus’ commitment to the downtrodden and all earth’s creatures. St. Francis is credited with having invented the nativity in the thirteenth century (D’Aponte), and most accounts of the prespe tradition state that the saint staged the first nativity with actual people and animals he loved. Presepi were subsequently created as objects, although live nativities continue to this day. Early fabricated presepi were made from stone, but terracotta, wood, wire, cloth, and paint became and remain favored materials. They are used to produce a grotto setting, the Holy Family, angels, the magi, and shepherds with their animals. These biblical figures were the starting point for assemblages that became increasingly elaborate in form and content, especially from the seventeenth century on, when royals, aristocrats, and wealthy merchants hired prominent artists and artisans to produce astoundingly life-like and exuberantly detailed presepi to reflect their stature and piety. The Baroque theatricality and ornateness of these presepi are the defining aesthetic of Neapolitan nativities up to the present day (Bellenger and Romano 36–39). Year-round, but especially during the Christmas season, people purchase presepe components at all price points, and whether the items are large or small traditional or contemporary pieces—running the gamut from an angel to a soccer star—they are realistic, elaborate, and dramatic. Permanent presentations of nativities at several Naples locations, and Christmastime displays in churches, civic centers, commercial enterprises, and schools, draw visitors eager to admire often densely-populated, minutely-detailed, and beautifully-lit presepi, many of which having moving parts. Wonders of craftsmanship and imagination, Neapolitan nativities have a richness that may seem at odds with the humble life Christ and St. Francis modeled, but they in fact represent occurrences from all walks of life with attention that embodies love, and have become a popular art form rather than a solely rarified art that only a few can afford.

Whether grand or simple, presepi express faith in community not only as collective Catholic piety, but also as faith in community: a conviction that people can share an experience however different they may be from one another. Durham’s nativities stand witness to the former and as a tribute to the latter. Durham recognizes that presepi are a glue for people in the city, and with his neighborhood nativity, he has produced a binder for those he lives among.

2 “Art Exists Socially for Us”

Durham has communicated this idea about art and the social repeatedly when speaking and in writing (Durham, “Report” 24), and like his argument that art is a form of thinking that grounds better ways of being together, it serves as a cornerstone of his practice. Envisioning and working toward a just world informs Durham’s activism and advocacy efforts. From 1975 to 1979, while living in New York, he was executive director of the American Indian Movement’s International Indian Treaty Council, and in that role was the representative to the United Nations for Indians of North and South America. Durham left the American Indian Movement in 1979, having lost faith in much of its leadership (Durham, “An Open Letter”), but continues to be a passionate advocate for native rights and critical of racist representations of Indians, which he explored in the 2005 exhibition The American West, co-curated with art historian Richard William Hill (Durham and Hill). Today, living in Berlin as well as Naples, Durham engages institutions that police boundaries among people and places in and around Europe, most recently criticizing the xenophobia that demonizes migrants. His spring 2018 joint exhibition with Maria Thereza Alves, The Middle Earth, examined the rich and diverse cultures that have and continue to shape the Mediterranean. The artists dedicated their project to those now migrating to Europe to pursue safety and freedom, welcoming the contributions these people will make to a better future (Alves and Durham), and repudiating growing efforts to close Europe’s borders to “outsiders.” An artist committed to social justice who believes that art is a social experience, Durham asks us with his creations to interrogate our beliefs and assess our actions to see where and why we shut ourselves off to others.

Receptivity and openness are the foundation of Durham’s art making—at the very level of the stuff with which he works—for he collects every imaginable material for his art while walking in his surroundings and encountering people. He picks up detritus, buys castoff and unremarkable goods, and accepts gifted items, housing everything he acquires in his studio spaces until they become part of his assemblages. Durham maintains that materials are neither good nor bad—that instead these qualities emerge in what we do with what we have (Artist Talk). He is committed to a positive relationship with the stuff of the world, sensing that it in turn loves him and offers itself up for making (“Report” 27). What most consider inanimate, such as the stone that appears frequently in Durham’s art, the artist thinks of as a sort of being with whom he collaborates. A short segment of a documentary on Durham that filmmaker Cristian Manzutto is making reveals this story at the heart of the artist’s experience: that generative connections exist among all matter, whether living or dead. In the film segment, Durham arranges a series of found objects and small sculptures he made with a variety of materials, and groups them according to how he says they need and enhance one another. Through his gestures and words he points to the ways the objects prop, balance, and accommodate one another: how they create a little community of recognition and support (Manzutto). This space of making and play is a light-hearted microcosm of Durham’s ethos and practice: artistic creation that brings us into communicative and potentially sustaining relations with all sorts of others.

In this sense, Durham’s work is a sort of philosophy in action, and it aligns with other thinkers’ powerful ideas about connection with difference—variance that may be challenging to grasp and/or hard to embrace. Some of these ideas address secular experience while others concern themselves with religion. Durham’s presepi point to what these ideas have in common despite their orientation: that although it may not seem possible, we can join up with what we keep separate.

3 Wonder and Good News

Wonder is a key experience for Durham and with his work: as sensation it draws him and us to marvel at the stuff of the world, and as thought, it compels him and us to analyze the arrangements that draw all of this stuff—living and otherwise—into relationships of his and others’ making. Historian Caroline Walker Bynum’s understanding of wonder in the Middle Ages, which she uses as a rudder to steer her writing, is congruent with wonder in Durham’s practice, and it sheds light on the artist’s presepi as wonder-full artworks and experiences. Bynum distinguishes medieval wonder (as admiratio), from that which emerged in the early modern world, the latter of which fueled projects to acquire places, beings, and things found beyond known horizons. For Bynum, admiratio, by contrast, is “cognitive, perspectival, non-appropriative, and deeply respectful of the specificity of the world” (24). She argues:

Not merely a physiological response, wonder [in the Middle Ages] was a recognition of the singularity and significance of the thing encountered. Only that which is really different from the knower can trigger wonder; yet wonder will always be in a context and from a particular point of view. To medieval thinkers, human beings cannot wonder at what is not there; but neither can we wonder at that which we fully understand.


Durham’s presepi have these both tangible and intangible aspects: the elements of the Madre Museum and neighborhood nativities are resolutely there—we know we are looking at a piece of wood, seeing a wise man—but often difficult to make sense of, both as material choices and as representations. The presepi exist in the context of contemporary art, a realm known for unusual approaches to and perspectives on creation, and they live too in the world of Neapolitan nativities where strange collisions between biblical and current figures can occur. But placing Durham’s presepi in these two contexts does not make them more graspable. It instead compounds wonder: contemporary art is rarely hospitable to Christian practice and yet here it is; Neapolitan nativities rarely contain raw materials and yet here they are.


Figure 5

Jimmie Durham, Naples neighborhood presepe (detail of angel)

Citation: Religion and the Arts 23, 5 (2019) ; 10.1163/15685292-02305003

The angel figures in Durham’s presepi are good examples of how his nativities exemplify wonder in the sense that Bynum describes (see figs. 5 and 6). We see the “there-ness” of Durham’s angels—one is clearly a white bone, the other a mysterious, colored material that unmistakably glows—but they are not present as the heavenly host we know from familiar imagery. They in no way conform to the idealized naturalism and conventional beauty of the delicately-colored and elegantly-shaped angels that float gracefully above other elements in Neapolitan presepi. But we do not turn away from Durham’s angels because of this. Instead, their surprising and stunning materials as well as their strange and commanding forms compel us to look in wonder: in his angels we see “singularity and significance” that cannot be securely placed. Unlike other presepi that typically have several angels, Durham’s nativities have only one each, and the beings do not fly. Their individuality and grounded-ness contract and intensify energy and focus, and this condensation resists charm: the artist’s figures are not sweet or comforting, but fierce and disorienting.

Durham achieves these effects with his different angels using almost diametrically opposed colors, textures, shapes, and implied movement for each. His neighborhood angel is a long, white bone from an animal’s limb, with a gap running its length in the front. This opening not only creates a sense of lightness underscored by the angel’s bright color, but also evokes a sense of absence at the figure’s very material core, a physicality emphasized by raised striations on the bone’s inner chamber that look like ribs. This incongruity is disquieting: an empty bone evokes death forcefully, and a ghost-like angel reminds us that not many people have a tangible experience of these creatures that populate Christian images and representation in other faiths. However, the sense of being and not being present, and of life and death conjoined that the angel evokes, rests at the heart of the human condition as a source not only of terrible grief but also of inspired hope. Durham’s bone angel, who seems to smile quietly, sway softly, and raise a hand gently, asks us to wonder whether what appears to be gone is entirely so.


Figure 6

Jimmie Durham, Presepio (detail of angel)

Citation: Religion and the Arts 23, 5 (2019) ; 10.1163/15685292-02305003

The angel in Durham’s museum presepe seems altogether different: it does not smile, wind appears to whip its gown, and its hands are clasped close to its body. It is also not white, straight, or hollow. Durham’s museum angel is solid with rounded forms, and appears to be a murky brown until hit by light: it then glows with every color of the rainbow like rich, thick glass. It is in fact made from thin sheets of colored Plexiglas that Durham glued together, and then sawed, sanded, and polished into shape (Durham, “Re: Presepe Figures”). The museum angel is seemingly more of this world than the neighborhood angel: its form and implied motion are energetic and robust, and its colors seem to capture all the elements that comprise earth, wind, fire, and water. However, like the neighborhood angel, the museum angel also evokes death: with indistinguishable features other than hollow eyes, its head looks in part like a skull, and when the figure is unlit and thus brown like dirt, it recalls the earth where bones rest. Like the neighborhood angel, then, the museum angel holds life and death in tension, albeit differently. Both beings produce wonder as Bynum describes it: they call attention to difference in its specificity and compel us to engage, while curbing any appetite to draw into ourselves their power—to appropriate, as Bynum sees such an urge. Durham’s angels give us earthly materiality and also point to that which is beyond our grasp.

This quality of presence and absence conveyed both in content (the angel) as well as in form (multivalent rather than representational), recalls philosopher Bruno Latour’s meditations on what he calls “gaps of religious speech.” For him this communication exists where smooth, clear language fails to capture what goes beyond words. Latour maintains that knots and breaks characterize religious speech—a visual parallel is the odd material and awkward form that embody Durham’s angels—and he argues that what may be experienced as a sort of stumbling toward the divine is the hard-to-convey message that what is absent is present now (105–112). For Christian believers this can be understood as Christ’s Good News: that what is far is near and that the dead live again. It is faith: the sense that the sacred is present although not concretely so in rational terms. Latour secularizes this condition of connection amidst difference and uncertainty, and does so in terms that speak to how the wonder of Durham’s presepi make community possible. Latour suggests that the “thing that turns us into individuals who are close and present might well, in certain places and in certain times, have been called ‘God,’ but we could also, today, just as easily call it by another vocable, such as ‘The thing that begets neighbors’ ” (135): that which brings what is away, near.

4 Thinking with: Toward a Meaningful Whole

For Durham, animals as well as humans are neighbors: he and Alves feed feral cats that roam in their Naples courtyard, and painstakingly have nursed some of their ill kittens. Animals appear quite often in Durham’s art and writing, and he shows in both that they are creatures different from humans that are not meant to live for us, but instead with us. Durham made this evident in his summer 2017 exhibition God’s Children, God’s Poems. The show featured fourteen life-size animal assemblages made from the skulls of Europe’s largest four-footed animals: the Alpine ibex, brown bear, Great Dane, elk, Eurasian lynx, Manx Loaghtan, Maremanna bull, musk ox, reindeer, red deer, Shire horse, wild boar, wisent (bison), and wolf. Like Durham’s presepi figures, each creature is made from cast off natural and manmade elements, and their colors and forms communicate qualities that emphasize each being’s singularity. The lynx’s coiled, supple dynamism is conveyed with glowing neon tubes bound together in looping swirls (fig. 7); the musk ox’s weighty strength is emphasized with countless layers of heavy, draped fabrics; and the brown bear’s ferocity is made evident by pieces of brilliant red glass and string that surround and drip from its jaws like blood. Each beast has its own, unique energy that excites or calms viewers, a push and pull that feels like mutual encounter.


Figure 7

Jimmie Durham, Eurasian Lynx, 2017. Lynx skull, cotton, leather, Murano glass, metal, wire, plastic, 136 × 61 × 70 cm

Citation: Religion and the Arts 23, 5 (2019) ; 10.1163/15685292-02305003

Collection of Maria Thereza Alves

As with the bone and implied skull of his presepi angels, Durham’s assemblages made with animal skulls embrace what is dead while showing it enlivened. Durham refers to God’s Children as “spirit animals,” and says that he knew how to give them form because they showed him what materials and finishes they required (“Re: Skulls”). For Durham, animals in all incarnations are God’s children and poems: beloved creation that communicates in ways different from many of our own—children often babble and poems sometimes drift—but that we can connect with to convey together something animate and vibrant.

Philosopher María Puig de la Bellacasa explores interrelationships among varied beings, including humans and animals, and she describes these combined forces as “webs of care” that she represents by “thinking with” other entities. She does not generalize these connections, but follows them carefully in their own particularity, noting the specific effects they create. Her view that “care is required in processes in which humans and nonhumans co-train each other to live, work, and play together to construct a relationship of ‘significant otherness’ ” (Puig de la Bellacasa, Kindle Locations 1456–1457), captures the spirit of Durham’s relationships with and representation of creatures great and small—and in his nativities, from the Christ child to a flopping fish.

Animals are integral to Durham’s presepi, possessing character that shows they are in no way subordinate to humans. Animals appear in Neapolitan presepi, and although some hold importance equal to many people in nativities, others are shown literally bound to humans. While buffalo and cattle are seen as entities in and of themselves, admired for their singular intelligence and beauty respectively (Bellenger and Romano 91), monkeys and some purebred dogs in presepi are shown in collars, attached to aristocratic owners as emblems of wealth and exoticism (95, 159). For his Madre Museum nativity, Durham created a monkey freed from a collar and chain, and it sits high upon the ledge of a mountaintop, which is crowned by the angel and scattered with other creatures: a large bear, a cub, a ram, and multiple birds. Above the humans below, these animals emerge from the swirling, knotted wood that Durham used to create his mountain, and are themselves largely wood in various shades of lush brown. Linked together by material and color, the animals and their surroundings nevertheless have their own integrity and separateness, to which the freed monkey testifies.

Implied motion interlaces these animals with other presepe pieces into a whole with care at its very core. Each creature up high turns inward toward the Holy Family, and the camel, bull, horse, and cats on the ground at the front do the same: like the humans in the nativity, the animals focus on Christ and his parents with keen attention. Placed across and through the setting, between and next to human figures and landscape elements, the animals form with all of the other components of the presepe a sort of web of care that Puig de la Bellacasa might view as sustaining. This is equally true of Durham’s neighborhood nativity: as I watched him consider where to place the two people and two animals he made to add to his work, I came to realize that he maneuvered them gently and precisely to produce a flow throughout the presepe, a dynamic that brought its separate elements into a balanced whole. This process, Durham’s nativity itself, and the people gathered around the presepe to celebrate Christmastime, one another, and art, all express the drawing together of difference through shared appreciation.

Each of these configurations are compositions—arrangements of varied elements into groupings that feel appropriate. This is the work of art. According to philosopher Isabelle Stengers, for philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead, it is creation more broadly: activity with God whereby we adjust what is given (which is often dissonant) into a meaningful whole. In her careful reading of Whitehead, which she describes as “thinking with” him, Stenger shows that Whitehead brought God and/as creation (all being, all making) into relationship through “all-inclusive, unfettered valuation” (483). When nothing is cast out—however troubling it may be—everything coexists, and we make sense of this mass by arranging it in ways that feel right. In the Christian context of the Creator and of humans’ work to compose their lives, this means salvation and redemption: God embraces and saves everything (even death), and by doing the same, we transform all that is terrible (like suffering) into redemption. For Whitehead, “the aesthetic value of discords in art” (475) is a microcosm of this macrocosm. Durham’s presepi resonate in all of these registers—theological, philosophical, and artistic—though they needn’t for those not inclined toward them. Looking and thinking with care in the presence of Durham’s nativities opens onto an experience of meaningful wholeness in conjoined difference, however one may conceive that.

5 Redemption

For the philosopher and Jewish educator Franz Rosenzweig, who made use of theological concepts, the miracle of neighbor-love, a capacity to welcome increasingly more of what is other into “we,” brings redemption: ethical transformation that uplifts and supports community. This is not abstract, universal love, or surrender of self to the other. Rosenzweig argued that neighbor-love arises from revelation, an event that shifts one into openness to new relation, from a particular impactful encounter that leads to others. It is a break from servitude, from the external and internal mandates we follow to exclude and divide, a response to “a notion of interpellation beyond (ideological) interpellation” (Santner 123)—a call from and to love that Rosenzweig believed and others take to be God.

Durham’s presepi model this type of neighbor-love, both inside and outside the religious contexts of the nativity and Rosenzweig’s thought. Durham is not religious because he abhors crimes committed in God’s name: although his artwork Jesus (Es geht um die Wurst) portrays Christ’s humanity, it and Durham’s other assemblages that address Christianity are critical of violence within the institution. However, Durham respects the religious event of the Neapolitan presepe, which produces togetherness among others in and around his two nativities. This opening out from a non-Christian to Christians, and to believers and non-believers of other sorts, amplifies the inclusion evident in Durham’s embrace of all materials, and animals.

A willingness to stand with what one may not understand or support can be difficult but is important: it is the task of making neighbors from those who are radically other to build a diverse coalition. A sense of such cohesion amidst difference in Durham’s presepi is evident in combinations of elements that represent known and reassuring figures with others that are not: barely-representational characters some may find uninviting and even distasteful. A grouping in Durham’s Madre Museum presepe is a case in point, issuing a challenge to find common ground with what and who may repel us (fig. 8).


Figure 8

Jimmie Durham, Presepio (detail of several figures)

Citation: Religion and the Arts 23, 5 (2019) ; 10.1163/15685292-02305003

Beginning in the back, right corner of the nativity, and arcing around to the front before the Holy Family, several human, animal, and unidentifiable yet creaturely figures stand, sit, and lie in the setting. Their differences are both visual and material, yet each is life-like, either in the sense of naturalistic representation or through material elements that in and of themselves convey energy and purpose. The contrast is especially clear in the human figures that begin and end the arc of characters: the fisherman at the back looks human while a king—one of the magi—at the front is a misshapen blob. However, both are infused with life: the fisherman surrounded by shimmering fish bends slightly to push his net out or bring it in, and the king, an abstract entity, glows with a rich orange color that radiates warmth and vitality. Although representing a wise man as a “mere” colorful thing may appear unseemly, it suggests that illumination is infinitely more important than worldly station. Lavishing what looks to be more care on the fisherman and his fish by rendering both recognizable may seem discomforting—they are not critical figures in nativities—but doing so makes them emblematic of the significant in the humble: the fisherman and fish are a sign of Naples itself and recall Christ as the fisher of men.

This powerful yet potentially disconcerting combination of approaches toward representation is more challenging in the sweep of elements that move from the fisherman toward the wise man. A boulder to the side of a cave opening appears just in front of the fisherman, and nestled between both, a long, abstracted figure lies on top of, and is indeed fused with, what seems to be a stone that echoes its shape. Another tall, abstracted personage, with a swelling body and featureless head, stands close to the conjoined figure and rock. A clearly-defined woman with a yellow headscarf, blue dress, and wizened face holds a round form in one hand and sits before both abridged characters. A male or female person in a long dark robe—the gender is not clear as facial and hair features are minimal—sits further down from the old woman, hunched over a basket resting on their lap. Before both of these people, with items that suggest they are types of food vendors that appear in many Neapolitan presepi, stand a long-horned bull, horse, and wolf. Each large creature is carved smoothly from wood of different colors, with the wolf possessing the only face with features, drawn carefully to communicate taught, focused attention. A goose below and slightly in front of the wolf is equally alert, stretched forward at the diagonal. The bird is next to two wise men behind the orange king, and like their fellow royal, they are abstract: one is an upright, dark, angular block form; and the other is a smooth, almost black, truncated staff-like element with what appears to be a curved bone bound to its back by bright blue ribbon. Two small cats sit to the left of the kings, and like all of the characters within view of the manger they attend to the Christ child and his parents. Amidst this arc and sweep of entities that move in toward the Holy Family, beings of all sorts reside, and they exist in varying degrees of realism and abstraction, made from materials ranging from assorted woods to glass and bone. This variegated bow of the clear and the strange is disconcerting: why is there a wolf with the bull and horse?; why is there a prone, abstract figure attached to a rock with another barely human thing nearby?

Perhaps because the wild exists alongside the domesticated, and because we are elemental, then less so. Durham does not tame his materials and figures, but instead focuses on their qualities and the information they can suggest rather than deliver indisputably. He produces a tension between the given and the made, showing the beauty of materials in and of themselves—the grain of wood, the glow of glass—and his careful, modest work with them. Durham does not put virtuosity on display: we do not see figures so life-like and gorgeous that we marvel at his skill. Instead he emphasizes his work with creation: give and take between what he finds and what he wants to make and see. And what we see is enormous difference brought together to focus on saving grace. Literally, Christ; figuratively, hope for a better world. The abstracted rock-figure with its creaturely, standing companion, shift this hope for new life into hope within the cycle of life. The figures may tell the story of resurrection: Christ dead, returning to the earth; then Christ risen from the dead, moving into a stream of life directed towards Christ’s birth. What philosopher Valerie Oved Giovanini says of Rosenzweig’s thought, is applicable here:

If the lived world is going to be a place where ethical or metaphysical relations are created, then the irreducible in expression and speech offers a place for an immanent nature to brush up against the infinitely Other in its proximity, and always imminently create its future. The constantly immanent and elusive nature of those creative moments continually pass; however, they are always available. Poetry as creative expression, like philosophy when ethics is its optic, opens a dialogue in its approach of the always silent Other, and the never yet created.


This dynamic plays out not only in Durham’s presepi, but also in the community that gathers around them. While viewing the artist’s nativity at the Madre Museum, I observed high school students savvy about contemporary art discussing the work with an older man clearly puzzled by what he was seeing. The Neapolitans separated by age and experience found common ground as they shared their thoughts about Durham’s angel: equally startled by its irregular form and hue, they were captivated by its shifting color when hit by light at different angles. They saw something beautiful in what had at first held them at bay.

When I looked upon Durham’s neighborhood presepe with those in residence around him and others who attended the party for the nativity, I too made connections with people very different from me. I traded smiles with Durham’s neighbors represented as figures in the presepe, who laughed at themselves in miniature, and I conversed about these figures in relation to Durham’s work more broadly with a young artist. I also observed interactions among other people just meeting one another for the first time, and heard them discuss not only what they found delightful about Durham’s presepe, but also what they found challenging about it and why.

In the sacred and secular contexts of Naples’s nativities, Durham has produced artworks that through their materials, forms, arrangements, and shared experience, create unity amidst difference. While representing faith in community—Catholic devotion in Naples—they embody faith in community: hope that new and better life together is born with neighbor-love, the process of making others, we.

Works Cited

  • Alves, Maria Thereza, and Jimmie Durham. Statement for the Exhibition The Middle Earth at the Institut d’ Art Contemporain, Villeurbanne. 2018.

  • Bellenger, Sylvain, and Carmine Romano. The Neapolitan Crèche at the Art Institute of Chicago. New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2016.

  • Bynum, Caroline Walker. “Wonder.” The American Historical Review 102.1 (Feb. 1997): 1–26.

  • D’Aponte, Mimi Gisolfi. “Presepi: A Neapolitan Christmas Ritual.” Performing Arts Journal 2. 2 (1977): 49–60.

  • Durham, Jimmie. “An Open Letter on Recent Developments in the American Indian Movement/International Treaty Council.” A Certain Lack of Coherence. Ed. Jean Fisher. London: Kala Press, 1993. 46–56.

  • Durham, Jimmie. Artist Talk at Parasol Unit, London. YouTube, 12 June 2014,

  • Durham, Jimmie. “Re: Presepe Figures.” Personal communication, received by Andrea Feeser, 8 Feb. 2017.

  • Durham, Jimmie. “Re: Skulls.” Personal communication, received by Andrea Feeser, 12 Feb. 2018.

  • Durham, Jimmie. “Report to Molly Spotted Elk and Josephine Baker.” A Matter of Life and Death and Singing. Ed. Anders Kreuger. Zurich: JRP Ringier, 2012. 18–31

  • Durham, Jimmie. Statement for the Exhibition A Shadow in Athens at Stigma Gallery, Athens. 2003.

  • Durham, Jimmie, and William Richard Hill. The American West. Warwickshire, UK: Compton Verney, 2005.

  • Giovanini, Valerie Oved. “Creative Ontologies and the Infinite Task of Language in Levinas’s and Rosenzweig’s Notions of Poetic Expression.” Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 34. 2 (Winter 2016): 59–78.

  • Langewiesche, William. “The Neapolitan Mob’s Most Dangerous Family.” Vanity Fair, May 2012,

  • Manzutto, Cristian. Jimmie Durham (documentary in process).

  • Müser, Kate. “Germany’s Best Sausage Expressions.” DW, 29 Sept. 2015,

  • Puig de la Bellacasa, María. Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More than Human Worlds. Minneapolis MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2017. Kindle ed.

  • Santner, Eric L. “Miracles Happen: Benjamin, Rosenzweig, Freud, and the Matter of the Neighbor.” Zizek, Slavoj, et al. The Neighbor: Three Inquiries in Political Theology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. 76–133.

  • Serenelli, Luigi. “In Italy, Immigrant Surge Raises Tensions in South.” The Washington Times, 24 Dec. 2014,

  • Stengers, Isabelle. Thinking with Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts. Trans. Michael Chase. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.

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