Performance and multimedia installation artist James Luna.


Performance and multimedia installation artist James Luna.

This month, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science in Colorado opened an unusual temporary exhibit within its Crane North American Indian Cultures Hall. Titled “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, confusion and commodification.

It also introduces Denver museum-goers to James Luna, a Pooyukitchum (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 and The New Museum in New York, and many other museums and galleries; in 2005, he represented the NMAI at the Venice Biennale. Yet he says he’s still developing and expanding his work and his message.

“I’m one of America’s oldest emerging artists,” said 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 he said he’s grateful for that classical training.
“Performance has variance, color, composition,” he explained. “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,” he noted. “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 real turning point in Luna’s art career came in the 1970s, when the young painter was first introduced to performance art through instructor and well-known Dutch/Californian conceptual artist Basjan Auder. He switched his focus at the University of California at Irvine and earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Studio Arts with a focus in performance art rather than painting.

He said was struck by the looseness of the medium, because nothing is written down. He also was intrigued by its interpretive nature.

“In performance art, you show by example,” he said. “I’m not out there to preach. People can make up their own minds.”

In the beginning, Luna said, 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 remarked 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 said. “It was like airing our dirty laundry. But I had to go where I have been; it’s my experience, and it makes stronger work. Also, I have a master’s degree in counseling (from San Diego State University), 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,” he continued. “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 within 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. But there’s more.

“It came to me several years ago, when I was given a mask as a gift,” he explained. “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,” Luna 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 own 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.
“I’d been to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, and I wanted to do something fun,” he explained.

In “Emendatio,” which Luna presented at the 2005 Venice Biennale, the artist challenges mainstream assumptions about Native people and the idea that there is somehow 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.

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 own searing observations with a startling sense of humor. Viewers often find themselves simultaneously entertained and disturbed, laughing even as a painful realization strikes home.

In one noteworthy performance, titled “Take a Picture With a Real Indian,” Luna dons two distinct outfits and invites the audience members to take photos with 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. The artist said he found himself trying to control his anger, as he did years ago when he saw people paying to have their photo taken with a traditionally dressed Indian outside a tourist shop in Cherokee, North Carolina.

“It’s camouflage,” Luna explained. “It’s the image they have of you to gain access. It’s such a stereotypical view, and really, it’s a dual humiliation.”

For “James Luna Presents Making Do,” the artist crafted an installation specifically for the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. In fact, 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 said. “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,” he continued. “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 said. “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,” he warned. “It’s informative, with a regard for composition, but this museum isn’t an arts venue.” After a brief pause, he added with a grin, “It really tickles me to be in the diorama area.”

Luna said he hopes to make a point with the exhibit, dispelling those perceived mysteries while also addressing the question of why Indian families keep certain things.

“I’m educating on issues I think are important,” he observed, “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 will note that the artist has not filled the exhibit with labels, names and dates. Those things, he said, would make it anthropological rather than artistic. He also wants viewers to recognize the honesty behind the work, since his own 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 said. “And maybe the more painful, or the more humorous, the better.”

When asked if he has a favorite piece of work, Luna laughed.

“I haven’t made it yet,” he said. “I want to challenge myself with new media, while remembering that it’s a tool and must be used sparingly. It can’t overshadow the work.

“And there’s much more to say,” he added. “There’s more work to be done.”

Luna did acknowledge, however, that he is slowing down — with age, and due to his back surgery earlier this year, which he said was “an eye-opener.” Yet he also noted the power in being an elder.

“If you make it that far, you’re going to learn something,” he said, eyes twinkling.

Luna said his dream is to have his own performance troupe comprising 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 explained. “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 own identity as an American Indian contemporary artist,” he concluded. “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 last May, when he was awarded an honorary doctorate in the humanities alongside N. Scott Momaday, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “House Full of Dawn.”

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