Museum of Contemporary Native Arts

James Luna

By Shanna Ketchum-Heap of Birds

James Luna (Pooyukitchum/Luiseño), one of the leading figures in the field of contemporary Native American art, exhibits his performances and multimedia installations at national and international venues.  He graduated from the University of California, Irvine, with a degree in studio art in 1976 and retired as a full-time counselor from Palomar College, San Marcos.  Over the past three decades, Luna has created works that explore Native American issues in a contemporary vein inspired by personal experience and critical observations.  Using irony and satire, Luna’s performances often deal with socio-economic issues affecting Indian communities thereby confronting and challenging stereotypes about Native Americans.

In the widely acclaimed Artifact Piece (1987), Luna created an installation about a modern Indian man and, in so doing, critiqued the representation of Native culture by museums and other institutions that systematically objectify and romanticize Native peoples as either living in the past or altogether vanquished.  In the installation, the artist laid  or in a display case with personal objects such as family pictures, college diplomas, and divorce papers on view.  This was Luna’s opportunity to “bite back,” or speak from a Native perspective[1] with emotion and feeling by literally sharing his life (and body) with an audience.  In Take A Picture With A Real Indian (1993) the artist dressed in three different “costumes” and beckoned his audience to take a photo with him as a way to comment on the exploitation of Native culture in American corporate society.  Luna wore a loincloth, subsequently added a bone breast plate and a feather in his hair, and, lastly, put on regular street clothes.  The fact that the audience does not line up for photographs when he is wearing the last “costume” proves Luna’s point that Native people have been turned into commodities by the entertainment industry.

The artist was commissioned by the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, to exhibit Emendatio at the 51st International Art Exhibition, Venice Biennale, 2005.  Emendatio—“emendation” in English—means to correct what is erroneous or faulty.  The exhibit consisted of four installations and a sixteen-hour performance titled Renewal that took place in four-hour intervals over four days.  In a ritualistic circle made up of sugar packets, syringes, and insulin vials, Luna danced in place as a gesture of sacrifice.  In the installation Apparitions: Past and Present images of the artist’s family come into view, while in The Chapel for Pablo Tac, homage is paid to the life of a fellow Luiseño tribal member who studied at a missionary school in Rome in 1814.  According to one critic, Luna’s exhibit is not only about the resilience and survival of a people but also shows how the Luiseño have “transmuted Euro-American culture’s useful elements into something uniquely their own.”[2]

Luna states that his “30 year-plus career is alive and well and I continue to challenge myself [in terms of] content, technology and physically.”[3] In April of 2009, Luna presented Urban (Almost) Rituals at the Te Papa Tongarewa Museum in Wellington, New Zealand.  This eight-hour performance was streamed live on the internet and displayed innovative use of video projection, a “beat” music score, and invited the participation of local artists.  Luna currently resides on the La Jolla Indian reservation.

[1] James Luna, “Sun and Moon Blues,” in Obsession, Compulsion, Collection: On Objects, Display Culture, and Interpretation, ed. Anthony Kiendl, (Alberta: Banff Centre Press, 2004), 146.

[2] Eleanor LeBeau, “James Luna: New York,” Art Papers 32, no. 4 (July/August 2008): 69.

[3] James Luna, “Re: Essay for IAIA Vision Project Book,” personal communication with the author, January 10, 2010.