Notable Deaths ›

James Luna (1950 - 2018), Native American performance artist

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He used humor to challenge racial stereotypes

James Luna dedicated his artistry to challenging the caricatured image of Native Americans in contemporary culture. He used humor in his performances and installations, but his message was not a joke. He wanted people to see one another as human beings.

Luna died Sunday, March 4, 2018, of a heart attack in New Orleans, according to Indian Country Today. He was 68.

For over 40 years Luna was an active artist, exhibiting his work at museums and galleries across the United States, including the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.

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He came to the attention of the larger art world with “The Artifact Piece,” in 1987.  In the installation he laid upon a table, wearing a loincloth, alongside glass cabinets full of artifacts from his life, including his divorce papers, cassettes of his favorite music, and his traditional medicine objects.

The exhibition took place at the San Diego Museum of Man, and visitors were often shocked to discover the Indian on the table was breathing. Presenting this work in an anthropology museum was a critique on the way that the general public was often exposed to Native Americans as historical objects.

“The piece was a success on many levels. It shocked people. It saddened them. But overall, I think it made them re-think what was being displayed in the other rooms. I was making a very strong political statement about how people see us,” Luna recalled in an interview with Uniters Media. “From that day on in 1987, I never looked back as an artist.”

Another notable performance piece was “Take a Picture with a Real Indian,” which he began performing in the early 1990s. The premise was simple: he would stand in public and invite people to take a picture with him.

“The people are getting up there to have their picture taken with an Indian, just like they would have their picture taken with the bull statue on Wall Street,” he told Smithsonian Magazine after a 2010 Columbus Day performance in Washington, D.C. “Indian people have always been fair game, and I don’t think people quite understand that we’re not game. Just because I’m an identifiable Indian, it doesn’t mean I’m there for the taking.”

“But in the long run I’m making a statement for me, and through me, about people’s interaction with American Indians, and the selective romanticization of us,” he said.

Luna was born February 9, 1950 in Orange, California, on Feb. 9, 1950. He was a member of the California Luiseno tribe, and was of Puyukitchum, Ipai, and Mexican American Indian descent.

He lived on the La Jolla Indian reservation and had a long career as a college art teacher and academic counselor.

During his artistic career he received many grants and awards, including the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, in 2017.

Although progress in cultural sensitivity had been made during his lifetime, Luna was concerned about what he saw as an erosion of this progress and a rise of fear about what he called, “the other,” in recent years.

“As an educator, as an artist, I believe that positive communication and information would go a long way in how we see the differences in each other,” Luna said in 2017.

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