James Luna first performed Take a Picture with a Real Indian in 1991 at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s branch at Federal Reserve Plaza in New York’s Financial District. In the piece, Luna presents himself as if seen through the eyes of a tourist cruising past a reservation on one of America’s byways. The artist delivers a monologue in three parts while attired three different ways: First, he wears only a breechcloth and moccasins, offering himself up as a kind of noble savage; next, typical American street clothes: slacks and a black crew-neck tee; and finally a stereotypical war-dance getup, which includes a headdress, silver arm cuffs, and a beaded breastplate. So clad, he represents “the Indians that everybody likes,” as Luna wryly puts it in backstage footage from a 2001 performance of the work in Salina, Kansas. Indeed, in the video the crowd murmurs with noticeably more enthusiasm when Luna emerges for the finale in this ensemble, a composite drawn from the styles of various Native American tribes to both mirror and mock a typical American’s incoherent understanding of the country’s Indigenous inhabitants.
Over the years, Take a Picture with a Real Indian has become textbook fodder for discussions of performance art, identity politics, and institutional critique. Thus its recent restaging at Garth Greenan Gallery is well deserved, even overdue. One key element is missing, however: James Luna, who passed away in 2018. At the time of his death, Luna remained a niche figure in the larger art world. This marginal status was legibly a function of his living in the US as a person of Payómkawichum, Ipai, and Mexican descent. And Luna worked primarily in performance—a genre that, early in his career, was given a lukewarm reception by most institutions. Like much of his work, Take a Picture with a Real Indian draws its power from the collision of a white audience’s desires and expectations with the ambient anxiety produced by Luna’s suppression of his own rage; he memorably called the piece a “dual humiliation.” Despite the sturdy, and in a new way haunting, presentation at Greenan, without Luna himself this open wound of a work inevitably feels cauterized.
Notably, Take a Picture with a Real Indian lacks the personal detail that fuels much of Luna’s oeuvre. For example, in his famous Artifact Piece, 1985–87, Luna lay like a specimen inside a display case in an anthropological museum, with little placards positioned around his body describing, among other things, his bittersweet feelings over a failed marriage and his problems with alcohol. Adjacent, a vitrine held personal items, including family photos, a copy of Allen Ginsberg’s collection Kaddish (1961), the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks LP (1977), and a packet of chewing gum in the shape of tacos. What makes Luna’s work so rich is embodied by those painful reflections and that idiosyncratic and intimate array of accoutrements, which in turn embody the structural straitjacket faced by Native peoples within the United States. When he injected himself with insulin onstage as part of In My Dreams, 1996, he did so not merely to dramatize the degree to which diabetes is a problem in Native communities; he did so because he, too, was diabetic. When he downed a six-pack in eighteen minutes in 1986’s bleak The Drinking Piece, he was offering more than a bit of high-minded theater. Yet despite this seeming recourse to authenticity, Luna deconstructs whatever is supposedly natural to a Native person—or anyone else for that matter—by exposing unpleasant facts and blowing up clichés through the vividness of his projections and the thorny vulnerability of his performances. This complex relation to the authentic makes Luna’s work feel very contemporary indeed, ripe for new showings. Unfortunately, as like so many artists for whom broader appreciation finally arrives, Luna isn’t around to enjoy his.
In the footage for Take a Picture with a Real Indian, Luna thrice asks the audience to take a Polaroid with him—or two, rather, one for themselves and one to post on the gallery wall. The ersatz war-dance outfit was, unsurprisingly, always the most popular, whether he performed to “sophisticated” audiences in a New York museum or tourists in front of the Columbus Fountain at Washington, DC’s Union Station. The photo ops would typically take place on a little Astroturfed riser—reappropriated “land” as bogus greenery, another twist of the knife—while nearby loomed three life-size cardboard cutouts of Luna, each showing him in a different guise; these, like the photos, would remain in the gallery after the performance was over. In the posthumous restaging, Luna’s avatars become, to employ an overused but in this case thoroughly apt word, uncanny. For a white viewer, the distress caused by the possibility that these inanimate figures might come to life is pinpoint-mapped to the notion that the human being beneath the reified construct of a Native American might, terrifyingly, speak for himself.
— Domenick Ammirati