Noted Indigenous performance artist James Luna walks on

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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.

James Luna. Photo courtesy of James Luna Facebook page.

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.”

Luna performing in November 2017. Photo courtesy of James Luna Facebook page.

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.

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4 Comments

  1. I first heard and saw Jame Luna in 1995 at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
    He was a visiting artist giving a presentation on his work. I was one of hundreds of
    students and the public who were moved by James Lunas work.

    I wanted to meet him and was only able to say hello briefly. He was kind and gentle
    in person. He was also very focused and clear about his work and intent.
    He was a strong influence on me for many personal, cultural reasons.

    Thank you for your brilliance Jame Luna… may you rest with the ancestors.

    un abrazo
    william
    “pachacuti, pachacuti, pachacuti”

  2. Sonny Skyhawk on

    The Native people of America have had so few who possessed the artistry of Jame Luna, he was as inspiring as much as he was an individual. A quote that has been attributed to Mark Twain reads “The two most important days in your life are the day you were born, and the day you find out why” Jame Luna found out why. An original artist. RIP.