What will James Luna do at our Museum? Before we get to that
question, let us begin with some background. James Luna is a
critically acclaimed installation, performance, and video artist
whose work has appeared in the National Museum of the American
Indian (NMAI), the Whitney Museum and The New Museum in New York,
and many other great museums and galleries. In 2005, Luna
represented the United States at the Venice Biennale.
Luna's artwork explores themes of identity and race. He is
particularly captivated by the consequences of what happens when
one group of people impose themselves on another. As a Native
American, Luna focuses on how American Indians are represented in
history. He asks: Who defines who is "Indian"? What does it mean to
be "Indian"? Why does being "Indian" matter?
Employing his sly humor and acute sense of irony, Luna subverts
our society's norms and expectations. In his pieces, Luna often
wears costume-party Indian headdresses made of florescent chicken
feathers to help make this point. Luna is particularly effective at
challenging our romantic ideas of the Indian, which too often
empower outsiders to define who is a "real" Indian. As NMAI curator
Paul Chaat Smith has written, "Luna insists that authenticity is
not a goal for Indian people, but a prison." Luna rejects the idea
of a tradition-bound and timeless Indian that exists in the past
instead of our modern world.
Luna turned his attention to the museum world because museums as
institutions have played a key role in defining the Indian in the
public imagination. One of his earliest artworks,The Artifact
Piece, was first installed and performed at the Museum of Man in
1987. Luna transformed his own life into a natural history display.
In the gallery were photos, documents, and things from Luna's life,
presented in a dry and neutral tone as if they were rare
anthropological and archival specimens. Most startlingly, Luna
turned his body into an artifact-literally. He laid in a display
case for hours on end, nearly naked, absolutely still, as if he was
an Indian skeleton or mannequin.The Artifact Piecehas become famous
because it so boldly challenged the difference between the generic
Indian-so often on display at museums-and the intensely personal
life of a specific Indian named James Luna. The artwork encouraged
the museum visitor to confront what it means to transform Native
Americans into museum objects.
When I first met this renowned artist, I was surprised to find
him reserved and quiet, even veering toward shy. This was
surprising because in his pieces, Luna so bravely and boldly bares
his experiences, and soul. InHalf Indian/Half Mexican-on display
today at the Denver Art Museum-Luna elegantly reveals that he is
descended from mixed heritages. Luna's mother is a Luiseño Indian,
and his father is Mexican. This photographic triptych-audacious for
one of the leading "Native American" artists in the country-compels
the viewer to reflect on what it means to be biologically and
The question of what James Luna would do at our Museum is a
question I first pondered when I arrived here as a curator in 2007.
Luckily for me, I later met him in person and asked if he might be
interested in turning his gaze to Denver. He agreed.
Luna is creatingMaking Do, a work specifically designed to be
presented at this Museum. Luna will explore what he considers a
survival skill developed by his California Indian peoples to endure
a post-contact world. Though the establishment of Spanish pueblos
began in earnest in 1769, Luna maintains the real transition period
for the modern period began later, during the 1800s. Indians found
their gathering and hunting lands gone, children were sent off to
federal boarding schools, traditional religious practice competed
with Catholicism, and the role of "warrior" was diminished only to
later reemerge when Indian men and women joined the US military.
During this transition period, Indians cleverly made do with what
they had in hopes of maintaining an Indian life and way of
thinking, and coming to grips with the loss of the "free" lifestyle
they once lived.
Despite the past hardships of his community, Luna conveys a
sense of the dynamic range of emotions, such as sadness, happiness,
and hope, that are often absent from exhibits about American
Indians. Luna's installations and performances often use family
photos, objects, and stories to communicate that his art comes from
a real place in the present, not from the past, but from a life
that continues on today. We are pleased and honored that Luna has
elected to share his talent and perspective at the Museum, and we
look forward to welcoming him to the Denver community.
Photo © James Luna