James Luna — his name should be whispered in reverence by all performance artists everywhere but also should be screamed through the halls of every museum. James Luna is a Puyukitchum (Luiseño), Ipi (Degueno), and Mexican-American performance and multimedia installation artist living on California’s La Jolla Indian Reservation. He has been at the forefront of performance art and its intersections with and influence on photography and media installation since he first stepped into a museum as a living exhibit in the 1970s. Trained by Dutch conceptual artist, Bas Jan Ader, Luna uses psychology, a keen eye to the contradictions contemporary ‘Indian’ people live under colonialism, the aesthetics of a painter, and a fearlessness in “airing our dirty laundry.”
The diptych Apparitions 2 shows the complexity of Luna’s strategy of juxtaposition in his photographic work. For this series, Luna uses self-portraiture as a contemporary Indigenous man paired with anthropologically situated photographs of potential ancestors. Apparitions 2 has Luna mimicking the photo of William Ralganal Benson, circa 1936 and held at Hearst Museum of Anthropology, University of California. Benson was an expert basketmaker, the evidence of which he displays in his hand. In the anthropological discourse surrounding him he is described as follows:
Benson was fortunate enough to
have lived his boyhood years during the last decade in which Eastern Pomo
speakers enjoyed a more-or-less traditional lifestyle. By the 1870s, the social
and environmental disruptions caused by a growing local Anglo-American
population would make traditional life impossible, as the lifeways of local
Indians became increasingly marginalized.[i]
Benson, along with his wife, exhibited at the St. Louis Fair as an expert basketmaker in 1904. In the Apparitions series, Luna draws parallels between his practice of performing ‘Indian’ for contemporary art crowds and historical figures who also performed their artistry for crowds at world fairs and museums. In Apparitions 2, the clock he holds gives a clue to his critique. While the archival photos show a fascination with an authentic ‘Indian’ culture from pre-contact times, the depicted artists were actually involved in a process of cultural change. Benson made a living from his work and used white expectations of his identity and culture for his own gain. Luna’s photos and performance works’ use of irony do the same, turning societal desire for authentic pre-contact cultures inward by insisting on contemporaneity. In fact, the clock did not stop and Indigenous cultures continue to change and transform as always. The desire to stop time for Indigenous cultures has always meant a denial of place and presence on both the land and in modern societies for current Indigenous peoples.
Another layer in Luna’s work can be seen clearly in We Become Them, in which he contorts his face into the exact replica of a ‘traditional’ west coast mask. Instead of critiquing the prevalence of desire for west coast art in the white imaginary he reframes the mask in an Indigenous context. As a performance artist, his work is connected to the work of the First Nations who would have used these masks in performance, offering a much longer history to performance art in North America. By using his own body to become the mask Luna draws us into the idea of transformation itself and its potential value in Indigenous cultures. As another kick to the knees of old school anthropology he questions: if the masks are meant to be performed then why are they behind glass? We might also ask ourselves how our cultures have shifted into Luna’s brand of performance and storytelling and how we should value it as equally about social change and community remembrance.
In Half-Indian Half-Mexican Luna challenges our understandings of racial purity and the stereotypic signifiers of culture. While each of his two profile shots are of the same man (Luna), each can be recognized as either Mexican or Indian because of the proliferation of images we recognize as representative of a culture. In this case, the Mexican mustache and the Indian long hair. When you confront both profiles head on you realize the ridiculousness of our standards of recognition and how easy it is to split a person in half by our desire to know who someone is definitively. When people cross borders literally (US/Mexican border) and biologically it challenges us to see the fear that lies at the assertion of all borders and purities. That same fear leads to violence against the bodies that cross those borders. While we might laugh at the absurdity of such a dual face we also realize the reality of imposing the division of those identities.
While Luna’s photography is a distillation and continuation of his performance practice it also functions in a similar vein. By having his own body confront the viewer, they can no longer deny his existence. The Indigenous body that has been segregated, exterminated, traumatized, disabled, and confined becomes a site of challenge, power, humour, community, and cultural continuity.
By Wanda Nanibush
[i] Title of Thelonius Monk song. He used it to mean the repetition of sounds at the end of a musical line or phrase. Luna loves Jazz and the title is a tribute to him.
[ii] Luthin, Herbert W. Surviving through the Days: Translations of Native California Stories and Songs: A California Indian Reader. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002: 261.