The Canadian Art Database

Charlotte Townsend-Gault

James Luna

from Land Spirit Power catalogue, The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1992
[ 1,390 words ]

James Luna began his career as a painter, but becoming dissatisfied with its limitations while studying at Irvine (University of California), he discovered that, by expanding into the performance art genre, he could 'put the concepts into action.' (1)  Luna's concepts derive from being, as he says, 'in possession of Indian knowledge, as well as being a trained artist,' and this enables him to bridge what he calls 'the gaps in North American culture.' (2)  Mediating between two, or more, cultures while operating in both is essentially what his work is about, the source of its power.

Luna writes about his work in part because he recognises the importance of positioning himself between the differing expectations that will frame what he does: 'Despite the many hardships we as Indian people face, there is much beauty and fun in our cultures. I would live nowhere else, as my life is filled with variety, as I truly live in two worlds. This "two world" concept once posed much pain for me as I felt torn as to who I was supposed to be. In maturity I have come to find it the source of my power as I can easily move between these places and not feel that I have to be one or the other, that I am an Indian in this modern society. Whether I like it or not, this society is not going to go away, so I (and my culture) must learn to survive in it.' (3) 

Luna's art, part of his survival, is as unabashed and disturbing as he intends it to be. He demands the right to make his work with or without reference to his ethnicity, and will use 'Indian', or any other means available, to recover his right to self-representation. In the resulting self-exposure he often appears to be telling us everything, and yet, in positioning himself he says, 'I'm very selective about what I give away.' (4)  Take Your Picture with an Indian (1991) deals with this apparent contradiction. At the opening (at the Whitney Museum Downtown in New York) an un-smiling Luna appeared in the gallery wearing, in turn, street clothes, a breechclout, and a 'war dance' outfit. Over the public address system visitors were exhorted to 'Take your picture with an Indian,' for, as he says, 'America loves its Indians' (5)  — and they did. 'This way everyone was humiliated,' (6)  he comments laconically. For the duration of the exhibition Luna was replaced by three life-size photographic cut-outs of himself. In terms of visitor response the exhibition was a great success.

Luna does his work primarily with a native audience in mind. 'I make my art for Indian people first, that is to say, I do not make it for the approval of the people, but so that they will get it. This also helps me to keep rooted and not get too "artsy fartsy". I make the work simple in its message, but thought-provoking in its content as well; I consider this to be Indian logic.' Many of the themes and much of the material used by Luna in his installations, performances, photography pieces, and videotapes is specific to the history of his people and their contemporary lives. 'There are things in my work sometimes that only other Indians will get, but as I move forward I have been surprised to know how many others get and need these messages as well.' (7)  And indeed, Luna's installations read as 'stills' from a drama, a drama which will play differently depending on the audience which activates it.

In Artifact Piece (1990), Luna lies naked, except for breechclout, in a museum display case. Labels explain his tribal affiliations: Luiseno and Diegueno from the La Jolla Reservation in Southern California. He is surrounded by personal artifacts: his divorce papers, college diplomas, childhood photographs, clothing, some of his Motown tape collection, and what he terms 'items of personal significance for a man of forty-two years old.' (8)  Luna combines museum conventions for dealing with 'the past' with Christian rituals for laying out the dead, and then lies in wait for the spectator.

'My appeal for humour in my work comes from Indian culture, where humour can be a form of knowledge, critical thought, and perhaps to just ease the pain. I think we Indians live in worlds filled with irony and I want to relate that in my works.' (9) 

In addition to his performances / installations, Luna produces epigrammatic statements that are wide in their references, such as the triptych Half Indian / Half Mexican (1991), in which he appears in profile with long hair on the left, and short hair and mustache on the right, whereas in the central image he is half-and-half. In The End of the Trail (1990), he mimics the lifeless pose of James Earl Fraser's sculpture of the ill-fated Indian heading for extinction. (10)  In Luna's version, the spear is replaced by a liquor bottle and his exhausted body is slumped over an old carpenter's sawhorse. In another photograph, Luna assumes the pose of Auguste Rodin's Thinker, but, equipped with a bottle, it is hard to say whether his preoccupation is thought or despair. In their different ways, Fraser's and Rodin's sculptures have become Western clichés, and have left their mark, like alcohol, on Luna's culture.

The imposition of alien modes of social organization and land tenure is one of the themes of The Creation and Destruction of an American Indian Reservation: An American Dilemma (1990), which acted out the history of the reservation — the invention of the white man — in the cyclical form of Indian thought. The circle closes in four parts. In the first there is the land, some earth on the gallery floor. Luna, as an unidentified character from a creation myth, dressed in a breechclout, repeatedly circles the land, suggesting both physical exertion and endurance. He turns over what appear to be stones to reveal that they are metates, grinding stones for corn, while mirrors, turned over, expose the illusion of water in the land. (Without water, how can the land, however designated by the government, be useful?) In the second part, Luna returns as an impoverished Indian from the turn of the century and puts up a wire fence, for this was when the people were divided by the government's allotment policy. Next, he returns to the divided reservation as 'a contemporary Indian of sorts.' There is rock on the radio. Government homes have been built, and there is a highway, mail boxes, street signs, and beer cans. Now Luna is drinking and walks around in 'an endless search.' (11)  In the final section the artist reappears as in the first. The mythic setting has been restored. He circles the land again, decides to leave, and exits the reservation? life? The myth? In leaving the questions open for his various audiences, there are, as Luna is only too well aware, no simple answers.

Luiseno-Diegueno, born 1950 on the La Jolla Indian Reservation, California, where he now lives. Studied at the University of California, Irvine, and San Diego State University, San Diego, California. Conceptual artist working in performance art, installation, and video. Received the New York Dance Theater Workshop's Bessie Award for Artifact Piece and Take Your Picture with an Indian, 1991. Has exhibited widely in the western United States. Recent exhibitions include The Decade Show, Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art, The New Museum of Contemporary Art, and The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, 1990, and SITEseeing, Whitney Museum, New York, 1991.


Steven Durland. 'Call Me in '93: An Interview with James Luna.' High Performance, XIV:4 (Winter 1991), p. 34-39.

James Luna. 'Allow Me to Introduce Myself: The performance art of James Luna.' Canadian Theatre Review, 68 (Fall 1991). p. 46-47.

from Land Spirit Power catalogue, The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1992

Text: © Charlotte Townsend-Gault. All rights reserved.

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