American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Luna, James Alexander

Artist James Luna (Luiseño, from the La Jolla reservation in California, b. 1950) creates both installation art and performance art pieces that use humor and irony to question social and cultural issues, Indian identity, stereotypes of American Indians, and representations of Native Americans. Because of his unique style of art and critical subject matter, Luna has broad worldwide recognition, which is unusual for Native American artists. On the other hand, his work is not well-known by collectors who seek Native American art adhering to the stereotypes and misrepresentations of Indians, which he addresses as subject matter in his work.

His work explores issues such as socioeconomic problems that plague Native Americans, as well as the roots of those problems and their manifestations, such as substance abuse and cultural conflict. In his artwork, Luna often creates artificial environments within galleries or museums, where he reproduces an image of, or performs a representation of, a stereotype of Native Americans. His intent is to present or perform the work in such a way as to demonstrate the ridiculous nature of the stereotype or perception, showing how Native Americans are misrepresented. Further, he seeks to involve the audience in this experience so as to have them confront their beliefs and challenge their cultural perspectives and boundaries.

Luna uses a variety of media in his performances and installations, including everyday objects, audio, video, and slides. His performance art depends on interaction between the audience and artist. The performance is the artwork. Unlike painting or sculpture, there is no actual object; this type of art must be experienced. When the performance is over, only the idea or concept of the work remains; this is the nature of performance art.

His installations utilize the same types of media to present a concept, only without his presence. In either case, the result is the same; because he uses material and/or actions that provoke a response, the viewer must choose to interact or ignore the work. Either way forces the viewer to think about the concepts to which he is drawing attention.

Installation and performance art are considered temporal, because they exist only in the moment, because one cannot collect or display conceptual works of art created through performance or temporary installation. This makes the work more provocative because it is a concept, not an object; to some this is a radical idea. However, Luna has created works that, despite the fact that they no longer exist, continue to provoke a reaction through photographic documentation.

Luna's best-known work is The Artifact Piece, which was both a performance and an installation. The first performance of this work took place in 1987 at the San Diego Museum of Man. In this work, he put himself on display in the museum for several days. He lay perfectly still on a bed of sand with only a sheet covering him, in a typical museum display case surrounded by exhibit labels and situated among two other cases that displayed his belongings. He was presented as though he were dead, an artifact. Visitors were not made aware that he was presenting himself as a living specimen. They were often shocked when they realized he was alive and returning their gaze all the while listening to their comments.

This work referenced and critiqued the way Native Americans have been and still are, in many cases, exhibited by museums. The point of the work was to call attention to what academics call "museumification," where Natives have been and in some cases continue to be interpreted for the public, in museums and galleries, as objects of the past and not as people of the present. This work was very successful, and it is cited and referenced by many publications, in many different fields, from art history to American Indian studies, some of which are listed in "References and Further Reading."

Luna's work is informed by both academic and personal experience as a contemporary Native American. He is formally trained as a painter, with a bachelor of fine arts in studio arts from the University of California at Irvine and a master of arts in counseling from San Diego State University. Luna currently works as an academic counselor at Palomar Community College in addition to his work as an artist

Traci L. Morris-Carlsten


Further Reading
Berlo, Janet C., and Ruth B. Phillips. 1998. Native North American Art. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.; Fisher, Jean. 1992. "In Search of the 'Inauthentic.' " Art Journal (Fall): 44–50.; James Luna Project. Available at: http://www.jamesluna.com/. Accessed September 17, 2004.; Lippard, Lucy R. 1990. Mixed Blessings: New Art in a Multicultural America. New York: Pantheon.
 

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