New Work by James Luna @ DMNS

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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 ethnically "half."

 

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

 

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