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James Luna Provokes and Entertains With His Multimedia Performance Art

A story about artist James Luna.

In October, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science in Colorado opened an intriguing exhibit within its Crane North American Indian Cultures Hall. Entitled James Luna Presents Making Do and on display until December 13, the unique installation explores the themes of identity and ethnicity in America, with all of its angst and confusion.

It also introduces Denver museumgoers to James Luna, a Puyukitchum (Luiseño) and Mexican-American performance and multimedia installation artist who makes his home on California’s La Jolla Indian Reservation. Over the years, his work has appeared in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., the Whitney Museum of American Art and the New Museum in New York, and many other museums and galleries; in 2005, he represented the United States at the Venice Biennale. Yet he says he’s still expanding his work and his message. “I’m one of America’s oldest emerging artists,” says the soft-spoken Luna, 62, with a smile. “I don’t use new or different materials to keep up with the scene. I use them because I like them.”

Luna started his artistic life as a painter, and says he’s grateful for that classical training. “Performance has variance, color, composition,” he explains. “These are the basics you need to know, so I’m grounded. At first, I rejected world art history because it was foreign to me. Greek art, for example, bores me. But you’ve got to know where you’ve been to know where you’re going. You have to have a sense of art paralleling history, what period the artists were speaking to. I have some favorite painters, particularly from the Renaissance. They were under such pressure to make a difference.”

The turning point in his art career came in the 1970s, when the young painter was introduced to performance art through instructor and well-known Dutch/Californian conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader. He switched his focus and earned his bachelor of fine arts degree in studio arts at the University of California, Irvine with a focus in performance art.

He says he was drawn by the looseness of the medium, because nothing is written down, and intrigued by its interpretive nature. “In performance art, you show by example,” he says. “I’m not out there to preach. People can make up their own minds.”

In the beginning, he says he created his artwork as a form of public therapy. He focused on his Native background, his community and his own personal issues. And he recalls that he often made Native people uncomfortable. “[The art] was scripted for Indian people, dealing with our ideas about identity, blood quantum, the cultural police,” he says. “It was like airing our dirty laundry… I have a master’s degree in counseling, so I know that the first step in recovery is speaking directly to those issues.

“As Native people, we need to see the bigger picture. We need to see cause and effect, not just effect. Then people will understand the repercussions of our identity issues, such as the loss of our languages.”

Luna primarily works in two mediums, performance and short- and long-term multimedia installations, and his subject matter has run the gamut. In We Become Them, he displays slides that feature masks from different indigenous cultures. As each slide appears on the screen, Luna captures the essence of that mask in his facial expression and demeanor. “It came to me several years ago, when I was given a mask as a gift,” he explains. “These masks are not costumes, and we are not acting. We do become them. And that’s what I do as an artist.”

In The Chapel of the Sacred Colors, he takes modern items such as a lounge suit, a racket, an electric grinder and a hat and places them into traditional roles to explore the ideas of vestment and sacrament. In All Indian All The Time, he blends his music with that of rock-and-roll icons such as Jimi Hendrix and Bruce Springsteen, singing, “Now it’s time to let things out… we got it all right here.” His electric guitar doubles as a traditional dance stick.

In Emendatio, first presented at the 2005 Venice Biennale, Luna challenges mainstream assumptions about Native people and the idea that there is a disconnect between the indigenous world of the past and the one that exists today. In the process, he honors the memory of Pablo Tac, a 19th century Luiseño Indian who traveled to Rome in 1834 from California’s San Luis Rey Mission to study for the priesthood and, in turn, be studied.

The End of Acoustic, from the installation All Indian All the Time, in which Luna blends his music with that of rock-and-roll icons such as Hendrix and Springsteen. His guitar doubles as a traditional dance stick.

In The Artifact Piece, Luna uses his body to make a powerful commentary on the objectification of Native American cultures in museum exhibits—and on the tendency to freeze Native peoples in the past, presenting them as artifacts rather than as living members of contemporary cultures. He wears a loincloth and lies still in a display case, surrounded by labels; other cases contain personal ceremonial objects. In an unsettling twist, viewers find the subject of their voyeurism looking right back at them.

Through it all, Luna blends his searing observations with a sometimes startling sense of humor. Viewers often find themselves entertained and disturbed, laughing even as a painful realization strikes home.

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In one noteworthy performance, Take a Picture With a Real Indian, Luna dons two distinct outfits and invites the audience members to take photos with him. When he is dressed in full traditional regalia, the line stretches far into the theater; when he is dressed in a suit, no one comes forward.

For James Luna Presents Making Do, the artist crafted an installation specifically for the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and the Crane North American Indian Cultures Hall itself plays a critical role in the exhibit. “The hall has sealed [Native people] in a vacuum of time,” he says. “The displays are stuck in the past. You see mannequins next to stuffed animals, and you have to ask, What’s wrong with this picture? How do we change this? I don’t have the answer, but I hope to get people to think a little differently. I’m injecting life into this hall, presenting emotions and history that all Americans can identify with.

“I want to share the beauty of [the culture], and let people know that there’s a lot less mystery than they think. Every human being has something in common. Our core is the same.”

The exhibit incorporates items in four categories: food/technology, education, religion and veterans. Through those objects, Luna reveals how Native people have always made do as they pursued their lives in a post-contact world. He has carefully selected objects and images from his own history, as well as from the museum collections. “I learned a lot about myself and my family, which became a focal point to speak to a larger history,” he says. “This was a great investigative research project, with lots of surprises and emotions, yet it’s minimalist too. There was so much stuff, and I had to carefully select what to use. That’s part of the artistic process.

“And it’s not set out to be pretty. It’s informative, with a regard for composition, but this museum isn’t an arts venue.” After a brief pause, he adds with a grin, “It really tickles me to be in the [museum ’s] diorama area.”

Luna hopes to make a point with this exhibit. “I’m educating on issues I think are important,” he says, “but I’m also hoping that families realize that their treasures shouldn’t stay in trunks and boxes. Digitize them, look at them, learn from them—it’s really rewarding. You’ll find stuff that is so important.”

Viewers of the exhibit will note that Luna has not filled it with helpful labels, names or even dates. Those things, he says, would make his work anthropological rather than artistic. He also wants viewers to recognize the authenticity behind the work, since his family records and artifacts bring particular issues to the forefront while remaining deeply personal. “If I use my own stories and objects, people will get the sense that I’m not bullshitting,” he says. “And maybe the more painful, or the more humorous, the better.”

When asked if he has a favorite piece of work, Luna laughs. “I haven’t made it yet… And there’s much more to say. There’s more work to be done.”

Luna does acknowledge, however, that he is slowing down—with age, and due to his back surgery earlier this year. Yet he also notes the power in being an elder. “If you make it that far, you’re going to learn something.”

His dream is to have a performance troupe of men and women, Native and non-Native. His role would be that of writer and director, with limited performance work. He also hopes to see a shift in the art world when it comes to contemporary artists who happen to be Native. “The schools give us the tools we need to create art, so that’s good,” he explains. “But they’ve also been teaching us to make ‘Indian art,’ which is a tragedy that continues today. I want to be in both books—the one about Native artists and the one about fine artists around the world. I want them to have to include us and other ethnic groups they’ve overlooked.

“For me, it’s about reclaiming my identity as an American Indian contemporary artist. Part of that quest is sharing what I do, because my voice is another way of speaking to issues. So that’s what I would pass on: Make work about your being, history past and present.”

Luna underscored that message at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico last May, when he was awarded an honorary doctorate in the humanities alongside N. Scott Momaday, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of House Made of Dawn.

“Don’t stop,” Luna told the students gathered for the graduation ceremony. “Make art every day.”