Known for his artwork that challenged the public perception of Native Americans and indigenous cultures, the highly regarded performance and installation artist, photographer and writer James Luna has died at age 68.
Luna, well-regarded for his ‘in-your-face’ art that questioned stereotype and colonialism and who was often referred to as ‘one of the most dangerous Indians alive,’ in the arts world, died from a heart attack at University Hospital in New Orleans on March 4th, 2018. Luna was attending a residency at the Joan Mitchell Center.
In terms of his artistic work, Luna was lauded for his brazen humor and shocking tactics. One of his most known art installations was in 1987 and titled Artifact Piece. The installation took place at the San Diego Museum of Man, and Luna shocked visitors as he laid in a loincloth and was surrounded by ‘Indian artifacts’ such as political buttons, divorce papers and music recordings. He also had labels pointing out scars from wounds he received from when he was ‘drunk and fighting.’
Another of Luna’s installations was in 2010 in which he created a “Take a Picture With a Real Indian” performance on Columbus Day standing in front of in front of Washington, D.C.’s Union Station.
In an interview with Smithsonian Magazine after his performance, Luna expressed the sentiment behind the world’s romanticism of the American Indian.
“The people are getting up there to have their picture taken with an Indian, just like they would have their picture taken with the bull statue on Wall Street. It’s there for the taking. Indian people always have been fair game, and I don’t think people quite understand that we’re not game. Just because I’m an identifiable Indian, it doesn’t mean I’m there for the taking. But in the long run I’m making a statement for me, and through me, about people’s interaction with American Indians, and the selective romanticization of us.”
According to Luna’s biography on his website, he garnered over 30 years experience with a multitude of exhibitions and performances and resided on the La Jolla Indian Reservation in North County San Diego, California.
His website reads: “Since 1975, he has had over 41 solo exhibitions, participated in 85 group exhibitions and has performed internationally at venues that include the Museum of Modern Art (NYC), Whitney Museum of American Art, New Museum of Art, San Francisco Museum of Art, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Canada, and Museum of Contemporary Native Art, Santa Fe, NM. In 2005, he was selected as the first Sponsored Artist of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian presented at the 2005 Venice Biennale’s 51st International Art Exhibition in Venice, Italy.”
As Luna told Smithsonian Magazine regarding his ‘take a picture with an Indian’ piece, it was much more than a social media selfie opportunity, he was sending a message. Though some of his work might have incorporated humor, it went much deeper.
“People want to put their arms around you, or want you to break that stoic look and smile. Or they say insulting things. After a while I just want to run out of there. But I’m there for a purpose and so that’s part of, I guess, being an artist,” said Luna.
“I just think that people should know that this isn’t a joke.”
For more of James Luna's work visit his website here. According to a services announcement flyer submitted to ICT, there will be an all night wake on March 16th beginning at 6pm in the La Jolla Tribal Hall Gym, and funeral services the following day at 11 am at the Potrero Cemetery on the La Jolla Reservation. Lunch will be served at the gym following the service on the 17th.
Follow Indian Country Today’s associate editor and senior correspondent, Vincent Schilling (Akwesasne Mohawk) on Twitter