Skip to main content

Kill the Art, Save the People: Why the 'Stereotypes' Had to Die

Artist Cannupa Hanska Luger eplains why he felt the need to destroy his Stereotypes sculptures
  • Author:
  • Updated:

Don't feel bad for Cannupa Hanska Luger's ceramic boom boxes: They had it coming.

One year ago, Hanska created the series of sculptures based on a kind of double pun -- as boom boxes, retro radio-and-cassette-players, they were types of stereos. They were also dressed up with hokey Native cliches and cheap accessories: they were stereotypes. The original intent was to make them to expose the stereotype and then to destroy them and the stereotype, probably. You know, things change. He took the group of works, "Stereotype: Misconceptions of the Native American," to Art Basel in Switzerland, to remove them from this place of the origin of the stereotypes, to the outside world. Soon he was dealing with issues within and without of his control. What’s next? Where to go? Galleries with economic considerations, or museums and education and teaching?

Left to right: Robbie Robertson, Sebastian Robertson, Jared Levine, Jim Guerinot

The Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe made an offer he couldn’t refuse, bring them to Santa Fe, center of the Native Art World and Marketplace, exhibit them and then destroy them, probably, maybe. When Luger found that people actually wanted to purchase them -- these items that he considers "so wrong" -- the Stereotypes' fate was sealed. Luger is married with a child and another on the way, he just literally moved his family to Santa Fe and it ain’t cheap in this zipcode. I talked to Cannupa Hanska the day before the event and these are his words.

“All these stereotypes are based on The Native American, The Indian, using US as an umbrella for the whole culture, all the varied cultures become as one thing, one lump. And none of us will own up to it either, that we use this imagery, we re-appropriate it, but also recycle and re-enforce these stereotypes and make money off it too. For me, as a Plains Indian, it hurts more because most of the imagery is from the Plains cultures, directly lifted from them. So it can be hard for us to say they are stereotypes when they are real to us. These ideas hurt when our cultural icons are portrayed as mascots, as loose ideas, totally out of the ether, they are vapor. They are hard to destroy. They are not real. So to be creative, I had to pull them out of the ether and bind them to something real and tangible and breakable.

The art formerly known as The Barrymore

Scroll to Continue

Read More

I had already realized the marginalism of Native People where racism is overt like up north, but moving to Santa Fe I see the fetishism of Native culture, the romanticism. People say they honor us with mascots or with this fetish behavior but it is actually more marginalism and more romanticizing, it is stereotyping. All aspects of us, our culture, our selves, becomes affected. And maybe we have taken advantage of it, even though it’s not true. Being in the Santa Fe Market, you see the extent of the commodification of our art and cultures, and these are economic aspects, both as individuals and as a community.

Initially, there was a feeling like we didn’t own these images, it was all out there in the public domain, and no one was communicating their deep dislike of it all. Nobody was saying it was wrong. That was before it all took off with the internet, both the images, the stereotypes and the response to it all. So now let’s pull them out, expose these ghost-like ideas and bind them to something real. It’s stronger artistically, conceptually, socially to destroy them. When people wanted to actually purchase them, I realized that they were doomed, even and especially with the economic pull. I actually challenged collectors to buy them and destroy the pieces themselves, as in Indian-Giving you get nothing in return. But this short circuited their brains, it made no sense to them. I’m glad that didn’t happen because there would’ve still been an exchange of money and ownership, it wouldn’t resonate the same.

I was actually kind of ashamed when I was making them, bright colored chicken feathers, super-Indian images, terrible dream catcher stuff, it was so wrong. We as Native Artists, sometimes seemingly have to put our culture on sale, it’s up for sale. My art needs to come from a creative place, from my perspective as an artist and a person, not a Native. I am a mutt, I am mixed, but I don’t want to share or sell my roots. My art is a by-product of me playing with these ideas.

I mean, I was brought up in the market, Indian Markets, making and moving these objects, selling art, seeing my mother have to sit there, all the work she put in to each piece, subject to the variables of the brutal art market. I appreciate and enjoy object-making. Sometimes I feel more like a craftsman than an artist. I feel you have to hone your skills as a craftsman, a maker of objects. Conceptual art seems to have played out, it’s all in the paper, the pieces seem weak. Don’t go to school to learn how to think, learn how to make things, hone your skills, manifest your ideas. If you are creative you can think of anything, while school can end up teaching you worn out ideas.”

Early on Friday, December 6, Cannupa Hanska Luger arrived at MoCNA ready to destroy the art he'd spent countless hours creating, works that had been on display at the museum since August.

But that is a story for another day.

Alex Jacobs, Mohawk, is a visual artist and poet living in Santa Fe.