Remembering Artist James Luna (1950-2018)

James Luna passed away on March 4, 2018. He was a Puyukitchum/Ipai/Mexican-American Indian artist whose work highlighted the way museums and American culture portray Native Americans. Through several decades of performance and visual art, James Luna contributed to shaping a contemporary Native American identity, and made a significant contribution to the history of conceptual art. He received a Creative Capital Award in 2002.

His most seminal work, The Artifact Piece, was first performed in 1987. In the piece, Luna lay still, nearly naked, in an installation vitrine, typically seen in natural history museums. This simple, quiet piece highlighted how Americans see Native Americans not as living, breathing humans—a culture that lives on—but as natural history artifacts.

In 2011, Luna was interviewed by the Smithsonian about his performance, Take a Picture With a Real Indian. He said he would perform the piece, in which visitors would take a picture with him dressed in “traditional” Native American garb, until he was “mad enough or humiliated enough.” His work was like that: satirical, but deeply illuminating of the oppressive and absurd structures that continue to affect Native American communities.

James Luna – “We Become Them,” 2011

Luna received a Creative Capital Award for his project Surreal Post Indian Blues & The Origin of the Sun and the Moon in 2002. The work was a subversion of Native American ritual and stereotype, re-interpreting images and events from popular culture, and juxtaposing them with the reality of reservation life. Luna had lived on the La Jolla Reservation in California since 1975, and he animated his experience by inserting himself in iconic images instantly recognizable to Americans. The work marked the first time Luna hired additional performers, a musical director, and a video artist. The piece was performed at the Venice Biennale in 2005.

Postcommodity, an indigenous artistic collective that also received the Creative Capital Award, knew James Luna personally, and told us that, “Each of us had a slightly different relationship with him. He was never a mentor, or anything like that.  But he was good to us. He was always welcoming and generous and present.

“It will take many years to unravel the impacts of his art practice,” they continued. “He’s one of a handful of important American Indian artists of his generation who built a path for radical, free, conceptually rigorous expression that bridged previously enormous gaps between Indian artists and the contemporary art world.  All indigenous artists are better off because of Luna’s contributions. It’s an enormous legacy.”

Learn more about James Luna and his work on his website.