James Luna (Luiseño) was a Native American artist whose work from the 1980s until his untimely death in 2018 shines a light on the complexities of Indigenous identity while exposing the racialized underpinnings of museum and gallery practices. The discipline of art history began during the colonial period in Europe and coincided with the creation of the great European museums. Celebrating their Greek and Roman origins as the ideals of academic art, museums developed a standard, linear “Western” narrative from prehistoric times through the present that essentially disregarded “non-Western” art. Despite recent efforts to address entrenched exclusionary and racialized practices, American museums and academia are still mired in a white settler-colonialist legacy that, tied to an insatiable appetite for consumption of material objects, has often failed to recognize and embrace the diversity of its population.
James Luna: Take a Picture with a Real Indian is a posthumous installation at Garth Greenan Gallery of a performance/installation originally commissioned by the Whitney Museum’s downtown branch in 1991. The piece takes on issues of Native American identity and stereotypes, and explores how they land in largely non-Native spaces of viewing and writing about art. Born in 1950 on the La Jolla Indian reservation to a Luiseño mother and a Mexican father, James Luna graduated from the University of California, Irvine in 1976 when the school was a hotbed for Conceptual and performance art. In a 1991 essay, “Allow Me to Introduce Myself,” Luna, a Conceptual artist who identified as an Indian who makes art but does not make “Indian art,” wrote, “It is my feeling that artwork in the media of performance and installation offers an opportunity like no other for Indian people to express themselves without compromise in traditional art forms of ceremony, dance, oral traditions and contemporary thought.” Carving out a niche grounded in forms familiar to the contemporary art audience and fusing personal autobiography with life, knowledge, humor, and rituals of the reservation, Luna moved authentically between Native and non-Native worlds to assert the irrefutable, contemporary presence of the Native American and upend the white fiction of Indigenous peoples as a vanquished race.
The installation at Garth Greenan, the first Luna exhibition at the gallery and the artist’s first solo exhibition since his death, introduces to a totally new audience what in the ’90s became regarded as a mythic performance. The gallery recreates the original tableau with three life-size cutouts of the artist with which the gallery-goer can choose to be photographed on a raised platform. In the original performance—which Luna repeated during his career as in the 2001 Salina, Kansas gallery performance that viewers can watch here on video monitors, or in front of tourists on Columbus Day 2011 at Washington, DC’s Union Station—Luna would appear in three separate costumes, first in a breechcloth and moccasins, then in typical American street clothes, and finally in full war-dance regalia—the latter always the most popular. He had a script for each persona and would ask audience members to take a Polaroid with him, a copy of which remained on view along with the photo cutouts after the performance was over. The performance, and the installation within which it existed and is revivified at Garth Greenan in documentary videos and photographs, begs the question: what is a “real” Indian to a white audience that is curious to know what the Indian is “really” like? Legendary Native American author, theologian, and activist, Vine Deloria Jr., wrote in Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto (1969) that it was a rare day during his time as Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians when a white person didn’t come to his office and proudly proclaim that they were of Indian descent. “Whites claiming Indian blood generally tend to reinforce mythical beliefs about Indians.” In Take a Picture with a Real Indian, Luna deliberately positioned himself as a stereotyped persona and as an inert, but real object against which white people played out such clueless fantasies and assumptions in often excruciatingly humiliating encounters for both them and the artist. The audience is and remains an integral part of Take a Picture with a Real Indian, but is the experience more removed and merely intellectual without the presence of the artist? When Luna was alive, he invited viewers into the work and, whether they were passive, detached, or enthusiastic in their participation, he deliberately elicited discomfort to bring into sharp relief white expectations and attitudes towards him as a souvenir of the past and a consumable object. It is my hope that Luna’s engagement of his own body and self in a relentless commitment to keeping Indigenous experience at the center of his art has carved out an ever-expanding space that acknowledges Indigenous identity and survival.
— Susan Harris