Jimmie Durham, an artist celebrated for incorporating traditional Native American imagery and materials into lively, unconventional sculptures before his claim of Cherokee ancestry was widely challenged, setting off an intense art-world debate over his authenticity, died on Wednesday in Berlin. He was 81.
Monica Manzutto, the co-founder of his Mexico City gallery, Kurimanzutto, confirmed the death but did not specify the cause. Mr. Durham had lived in Europe, mainly in Berlin and Naples, Italy, since 1994.
Mr. Durham began his career as an artist and activist in New York, working as an organizer for the American Indian Movement in the 1970s. He emerged as an important artist in the 1980s, gaining recognition for using materials like animal hides and skulls, feathers, beads, seashells and turquoise to create startling sculptures that skewer native stereotypes.
For one important work, in 1984, he installed an open-jawed Puma skull adorned with a feathery headdress on a blue wooden police barricade, seemingly a symbol of oppressed Native Americans. In 1986, he made a life-size, copper-colored self-portrait out of canvas tacked to wood with a seashell for an ear, chicken feathers in place of a heart (“I am lighthearted,” he wrote nearby) and annotations throughout that play with and challenge Native American stereotypes.