The man who has been called “one of the most dangerous Indians alive” has walked on. James Luna died on March 4, 2018, at University Hospital in New Orleans, where he was attending a residency at the Joan Mitchell Center.
Since the mid-1970s, Luna’s performance art pieces have taken up and shaken up stereotypes of Indigenous people through audience participation, shock, humor, and irony. Luna (Puyukitchum-Ipai-Mexican-American), who was an active artist to the time of his death, is perhaps best known for his Artifact Piece (1987), in which he laid, dressed in a loincloth, among other “Indian artifacts” from his daily life to be viewed by visitors to the San Diego Museum of Man. Of that piece, he told Smithsonian Magazine, “I had long looked at representation of our peoples in museums and they all dwelled in the past. They were one-sided. We were simply objects among bones, bones among objects, and then signed and sealed with a date. In that framework you really couldn’t talk about joy, intelligence, humor, or anything that I know makes up our people.”
In the same interview, when asked why he so often made himself the subject of his art, Luna said, “I was looking at work that I hadn’t been involved with. There was a gap there that I filled rather quickly when I looked around at myself, my family, my tribe, my community, and my reservation. It was all there, I didn’t have to go anywhere for subject matter. I’ve been at this 30 years and I have probably another—I don’t know how many years—to be done because it’s there, it just needs to be spoken to. That’s a message for younger artists.”
Luna also created “objects” such as Hot Medicine Bag and Electric Guitar War Pony. He had recently begun creating monoprints incorporating fish skin and colored tissue paper.
Since news of his death has reached the art community, heartfelt tributes have flooded social media. Tlingit glass artist Preston Singletary’s message on Facebook echoed many sentiments shared about Luna:
We had many adventures together through music and art. He was an inspiration to me and a reminder of the strong spirit that is within us. Changing our perspectives of ourselves and how others perceive us. He taught me to see things in a different way. Whoever saw him perform witnessed this. Sometimes brutish, and sometimes bittersweet, but always a unique perspective.
He will be missed, but he left a seismic shift in art world.