March 9, 2018
Shockwaves shot through the Native artworld with the sad news that James Luna (Pooyukitchchum-Ipai-Mexican-American) had walked on. He was furiously active, and I had looked forward to seeing what he was planning next. It’s a small consolation that he left at the top of his game.
When James began his art practice, Indigenous performance art was unknown. Now he leaves a robust, intergenerational movement of Native performances artists in several countries – many of whom he directly inspired or mentored. His Artifact Piece (1987) set the path of his career, but he willingly gave Erica Lord (Iñupiaq-Athabascan) permission to recreate his foundational work.
Luna’s generosity to the Native community was exemplary. He walked the walk. It’s far easier to be a Native art star in New York or London, but his own family and tribal community came first. He lived on the La Jolla Indian Reservation – “the poor La Jolla” as he described it. His unglamorous day job as a guidance counselor at Palomar Community College allowed him to support younger generations and to know their struggles firsthand.
By donating his archives at the Institute of American Indian Art, Luna further sought to inspire young artists. His notes reveal that his seemingly impromptu performances were meticulously honed over time. Just his exuberant delivery and perfect timing made them appear spontaneous.
Indigenous Californians are outnumbered on their own lands, not only by non-Native people but by members of other tribes, “the loud Indians,” due to decades of US Relocation policy and economic migration. Luna gave his fellow Indigenous Californians a voice on the global stage. The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian sponsored his Emendatio installation and performance as collateral event at the Venice Biennale in 2005. He recuperated the 19th-century intersection between his Pooyukitchchum relatives and Italy by exploring the history of Pablo Tac (Pooyukitchchum, 1820–41). This young convert studied in Rome and wrote the first Luiseño grammar and documented his people’s history before dying from smallpox. More recently, Luna created Ishi: The Archive Performance (2016), in which the artist embodied Ishi (Yahi, ca. 1861–1916), the last surviving member of his tribe who lived his final years at the University of California, Berkeley, before succumbing to tuberculosis.
The genocide of the Indigenous peoples of California is among the worst to occur on this continent – and among the most recent. Luna strategically employed humor and kitsch to entice his audience to confront this horrific reality. He skillfully interplayed tragedy and comedy to awaken audiences to the full humanity those that have been systematically dehumanized by mainstream society.
Thanks to extensive documentation, the trajectory of his work will carry his ideas to unknown targets in upcoming years. I recommend the moving documentary Bringing It All Back Home (1998) by Chris Eyre (Southern Cheyenne), in which Luna presents his performance art to his tribal community. His vulnerability is palpable. Luna’s works will reach new audiences now, offering others a chance to learn from his generosity. He not only bared his chest (and more) to us, but also his soul.
America Meredith (Cherokee Nation) is the publishing editor of First American Art Magazine, a visual artist, and an independent curator whose curatorial practice spans more than two decades. She earned her MFA from San Francisco Art Institute and has taught art history at the Institute of American Indian Arts, Santa Fe Community College, and the Cherokee Humanities Course. Based in Norman, Oklahoma, Meredith is committed to raising the profile of art by Indigenous peoples of the Americas.
March 10, 2018
To my brother,
“In his war bonnet, buckskin leggings and glitter-adorned vest the Indian warrior straddles his trusty steed. Head held high, with a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other, he begins his journey on the faithful horse. The Bike-master. Invoking ceremonial dances with a pair of feather-decorated crutches that resemble wings, Luna gives us the contemporary Noble Savage, crippled by circumstance but trying to fly …” (An excerpt from Lori Blondeau and Bradlee Larocque, “Surreal, Post-Indian Subterranean Blues,” Mix: the magazine of artist-run culture 23, no. 3, Winter: 46–53.)
James Luna. You walked me through this artworld; your art, your presents/presence in my life profoundly affected me. You were a mentor, collaborator, artist, friend, and you eventually called me your sister; my children call you uncle.
We first met in the fall of 1997, when I was the director of TRIBE Inc.; we brought you to Saskatoon for a performance and talks. In the early evening, I picked you up from the airport and out to eat. James, you loved food and cooking; like a chef, your art fed us, nourished us, and brought us joy, and you made the world’s best menudo. I was so nervous to meet you, but all that nervousness evaporated as we ate and chatted about art. This was how you were, you could make an emerging artist feel at ease and like an art star. At one point you asked me if I knew of this artist who made a piece of a surfer girl in the snow and you showed me a postcard of my Lonely Surfer Squaw. I was so flattered that you knew my work, I laughed and said “that’s me.”
From 1998 to 2000, you took me under your wing; we collaborated on three exhibitions and one performance. You were an incredible teacher, you taught me how to see things in a way that no institution could. Your mentorship was a gift, a gift that continued to give throughout our friendship. The world has shifted with you leaving us; our last telephone conversation on February 28th will always be treasured. You were so excited about your new projects and the film you were going to make. I loved hearing about these and we talked about your beloved home and yard, the new driveway and new storage space for your archive. We made plans to meet in New Orleans where you were embarking on a residency. You told me we would go listen to live music, eat, drink, and talk art!
You are timeless; your work will live on. Your work lives in the art of Jeneen Frei Njootli, Shelia Skinner, and so many more, now and into the future. We all know your work will continue: your legacy, love, and commitment to contemporary art was always unwavering. You loved being a proud Indian man! God Dammit James! Your presents/presence in this world will be forever missed, I know Pine & Willie are your new audience and I am sure you are all “Tapping one Down.” Fly my friend, just like you did in this world!
Love your sister,
Lori Blondeau is an interdisciplinary artist working primarily in performance and photography. She holds an MFA from the University of Saskatchewan and she apprenticed with James Luna from 1998-2001. In addition to her extensive exhibition history, Blondeau is co-founder of the Indigenous artist collective, TRIBE Inc., and has sat on the Advisory Panel for Visual Arts for the Canada Council for the Arts. Blondeau has exhibited and performed nationally and internationally including at the Banff Centre; Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon; Open Space, Victoria; and FOFA, Montreal. In 2007, Blondeau was part of the Requickening project with artist Shelly Niro at the Venice Biennale, and recently had a solo exhibition at Urban Shaman Contemporary Aboriginal Art Gallery, Winnipeg. Her art is held in public and private collections. Blondeau wishes to thank Adrian Stimson for his editorial oversight.
March 8, 2018
Back in 2004, as a young person who had decided to make art for the rest of his life, I started an email correspondence with James Luna. I had been studying his work, but more so, he looked and felt like a relative of mine, or a cousin of an uncle. Not just one of those guys who might joke around with you, waiting for a bus in Gallup or Winslow or Kingman. He, like me, was from the American West, a place that changed hands so many times that a mustache or long hair on a brown man contains too much information for the white brain to handle.
Over the last 12 years, James gave me a lot of good advice and confirmed my motivations. I bombarded him with all of these questions that had been building up:
“What if we can never escape the all-Native group show …?”
But you and I don’t make objects, we perform; how do you survive …?
“but then, what if one is still the token …?”
When we finally met and drank some beers, he asked if we were any closer to answering these questions. We agreed that, at best, those old paths have remained entangled, but there are even more paths available than before. But to where?
He had an answer for my many questions, and among the ones that stuck was:
“don’t invite me to do the Indian summer show in November.”
This was an Indian who happened to be an artist who had a second home on stages around the world. I admire that James always stayed close to the first home.
Raven Chacon is a composer of chamber music, a performer of experimental noise music, an installation artist, and a member of the American Indian arts collective, Postcommodity. He has presented his work at the Vancouver Art Gallery, La Biennale di Venezia – Biennale Musica, Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, San Francisco Electronic Music Festival, Chaco Canyon, Ende Tymes Festival, the Sydney Biennial, the Kennedy Center, the Whitney Biennial, and documenta 14. He lives and works in Albuquerque, New Mexico.