The Art of James Luna – Three Performances

by Rebecca Gebhard


“In the United States, we Indians have been forced, by various means, to live up to the ideals of what ‘Being an Indian’ is to the general public: In art, it means the work ‘Looked Indian’, and that look was controlled by the market. If the market said that it (my work) did not look ‘Indian’, then it did not sell. If it did not sell, then it wasn’t Indian.

I think somewhere in the mass, many Indian artists forgot who they were by doing work that had nothing to do with their tribe, by doing work that did not tell about their existence in the world today, and by doing work for others and not for themselves.

It is my feeling that artwork in the medias of Performance and Installation offers an opportunity like no other for Indian people to express themselves in traditional art forms of ceremony, dance, oral, traditions and contemporary thought, without compromise. Within these (nontraditional) spaces, one can use a variety of media, such as found/made objects, sounds, video and slides so that there is no limit to how and what is expressed.”

From James Luna, “Allow me to Introduce Myself”


James Luna’s performances and art productions are among the best known and most celebrated Native American works of art in contemporary America. This is because he does not comply to what has been done so far or what is commonly assumed to be ‘authentic’. For many, an authentic – or real – Native American is as different from the stereotypical white western person as possible and thus the white man’s Other. For this reason, Native American art is often only considered “good” – meaning “authentic Native American” – if it follows the categories imposed on it by white critics and an art market that seeks to entertain a mainly white audience. Stereotypes, like the Indian princess, the vanishing race or the primitive Native, have been interwoven with Native American representation for centuries and do not allow for a modern person of Indian descent creating an honest representation of Native American life, who is not solely focusing on the romantic side but also representing the tragic or frustrating part of Indian realities. The Indian has been the object of representation with little possibility to influence the piece of art or even to become a realistic subject ever since Natives were first portrayed by white artists.

James Luna challenges these stereotypical and outdated forms of representation by actively including them in his work and contrasting them strikingly with symbols of modernity, may they be positive or negative. He actively includes the viewer into his performances and thus points to the objectification of the Indian, while at the same time making himself a subject of his representation. Luna’s work mostly circles around power: the power of representation, the power of viewer and object/subject of the piece, the power over the Self and over the Other. These contradictions and tensions make his work thrilling, compelling and challenging for the viewer and himself and offer us an old and new view on Native American representation in America.


The Artifact Piece

James Luna’s probably best known and most celebrated performance, the Artifact Piece, is a powerful reminder of the fact that the American Indian is not a vanished race but as alive in the modern world as any other group in American society.

Luna first performed the piece at the Museum of Man in San Diego in 1987, where he lay on a bed of sand in a glass exhibit case just wearing a loincloth. He was surrounded by labels that explained the scars on his body (attributed to “excessive drinking”) which were complemented by personal documents form his life (e.g. divorce papers) in two other exhibition cases. Luna lay in the case for several days during the opening hours of the museum stunning the visitors by moving or looking at them unexpectedly. When he left the case for a brief period, visitors could still see the imprints of his body in the sand. (The Artifact Piece)

Later, Luna took the performance to a new level by lying on a table on stage while a slide show featuring images from the Artifact Piece could be seen in the background. Barely moving, Luna verbalized his experience lying in the exhibition case while the visitors talked about him not to him even when they had realized he was “alive”. (Gallerina)

The performance challenges traditional Western concepts and categories of art as well as the Euro-centric cultural gaze which objectifies and “others” Native American culture and peoples. Western art is mostly organized along certain principles and definitions which can be confining to the artist, especially if he or she is working in a non-Western context. Especially when these concepts and definitions are evaluating the authenticity of a piece, this may force the Artist to remain within static boundaries that cannot be influenced. Luna is negating a dependence on institutional definitions of Native American Art and does not adjust his work to the organizing principles, like definitions or criteria, of Western critics and art schools. By doing this, he provokingly points to the conflicts of Native identity formation in contemporary America. (Fisher 49-50)

In the Artifact Piece, Luna forces his audience to think about one question: Who is watching whom? Still, what he achieves is not just a reversal of the gaze because that would mean an acceptance of the established power structure in which Native Americans are left behind as “othered” objects; but Luna actually tries to “disarm the voyeuristic gaze and deny it its structuring power” (Fisher 49). Yet, Luna shows that this is not always possible: The outcry “I humble before you!” shows that even though Luna put himself in the position of an exhibit and disarms the objectifying gaze, he cannot completely escape from established power structures. (Fisher 48-9)

Luna is playing with the audience’s expectations who are confronted with a performance piece while they visit a museum which mainly displays artifacts. Even though the performance of a real person might not seem unfit for a Museum of Man, the audience is surprised and does not know how to react to the “undead Indian” in the show case. Here Luna puts himself in a position of power. He can decide whether the people around him will know that he is alive, he can choose to look at them, even to talk to them. The audience is thus included in the performance without having the possibility to choose or to influence. By doing this, Luna tries to put the audience in the place of the objectified Indian.

Works cited

Fisher, Jean. „In Search of the “Inauthentic”: Disturbing Signs in Contemporary Native American Art.“ College art association Autumn 1992: 44-50. Web.

Gallerina, de Coy. REAL FACES: JAMES LUNA: LA NOSTALGIA: THE ARTIFACT. 7. December 2009. Web. 24. May 2014. <;.

The Artifact Piece. Web. 25. May 2014. <;.




For the 51st International Art Exhibition in Venice in 2005, James Luna prepared his exhibition Emendatio, consisting of two installations and one performance. Luna later performed his piece at The National Museum of the American Indian, where the rehearsal was recorded.

The Emendatio performance in Venice consisted of four parts, performed on four days for four hours every day. Luna used the number four on purpose as it is considered sacred in many cultures and conveys the idea of permanence. Before performing for the first time, Luna said: “I’m not going to be a spectacle. I’m going to make one.” (Townsend-Gault 725) With this, he clearly defined himself and his ‘Native’ performance as an active subject instead of an entertaining object.

As Emendatio was first staged in Venice, Luna decided to make it a wordless performance which started with him preparing a ritual circle in plain clothing. Luna lets his motions and body speak for him and his statements. This challenges the tradition of representing Indians for white purposes which has aimed at paralyzing Indian identity for centuries. The circle consists of stones, SPAM (canned precooked meat which Luna feels personally connected to and calls ‘comfort food’) and syringes, insulin and artificial sweetener which stand for Diabetes, an illness that has spread like an epidemic over Indians across the U.S. The contrast between the seemingly traditional aspects, like the ritual circle and the stones, on the one side and the ‘modern’ or ‘Western’ artifacts, like SPAM and the symbols for diabetes, already seems like an early statement on the hybrid character of Native American identity.

Once the circle is finished Luna normally exists and reenters it in the dress of 8 different characters. These different performances are changed constantly and some characters might be deleted or added by Luna; but they all contrast the traditional perception of Natives with the realities of their existence just as the ritual circle does. This means that some characters might be dressed in traditional Native clothes but also wear something distinctly modern, like sunglasses or a black leather jacket. In the course of the performance the dress becomes more and more modern until Luna comes on stage wearing a red suit and a matching hat. All his characters perform ritual dances moving to the music in the background.

In his performance, Luna plays with the expectations of authenticity his audience might have in mind. Even though these expectations will not accept a combination of traditional Native dress with a leather jacket, he still mixes them because he wants to represent Indian people in a truthful way which gives the performance its power. Again Luna plays with the topic of power and power structures, reversing them by not adjusting but by dashing the expectations that are means of objectifying but are also the result of the Euro-centric representation of the past centuries.

Works cited

A Performance Rehearsal at the National Museum of the American Indian. Dir. Daniel Davis. Perf. James Luna. 2005 Web. 26 May 2014. <;.

Townsend-Gault, Charlotte. „Rebecca Belomore and James Luna on Location at Venice: The Allegorical Indian Redux.“ Art History September 2006: 721-55. Web. 23. May 2014. <;.



In my Dreams: A Surreal, Post-Indian, Subterranean Blues Experience

In his 1996-97 performance, In my Dreams, James Luna focusses on what remembering in general and especially the remembering of items belonging to another culture means. To do this, he explores the way in which we remember a part of someone else’s culture and how the granting or prohibiting of taking memories from another culture into one’s own tells us about existing power structures. Among other things, Luna works with images of “wildness” and “control” to emphazise this focus. (Blocker 22)

The performance is structured in three scenes, the first one starting out with Luna almost ritually preparing non-existent food in plastic containers with real salt, mustard, ketchup and artificial sweetener. He is wearing plain clothes and takes a long time to finish. Before really starting to eat he pulls out a diabetes kit, tests his blood sugar and injects himself a dose insulin. (Blocker 22-3) Diabetes is an illness that has spread alarmingly fast within Indian communities. In Luna’s home, the La Jolla Indian Reservation, 42 percent of the tribe were diagnosed diabetes patients between 1987 and 1992. (Luna 23) The fact that a disease, that has never been relevant when Natives were not in contact with Europeans yet and that makes it necessary for the Native man to regularly control himself (by measuring his blood sugar), is an intense symbol for the power of control whites have held and are still holding over the Indians. “Everywhere […] the test functions as a fundamental form of control” (Blocker 23)

In the second scene, Luna mounts a stationary bike, dressed in a costume-like headdress, black, pants, and red athletic shoes. He ‘rides’ his bike, while the audience watches scenes from The Wild One and Easy Rider in the background, that end with two “rednecks” shooting Dennis Hopper from his motorcycle, the movie’s sound is turned off. “Luna’s use of [the two movies…] is significant because both films depict wildness, cool failure, and rebellion as forms of cultural resistance. […] The motorcycle is the perfect symbol of individualism and rebellion.” (Blocker 27)

In the third scene of In my Dreams, Luna remembers Dean Martin. A picture of ‘Dino’ is on in the back and Luna explains what memories he and his tribe connect with the singer and entertainer, e.g. that Luna himself listened to his songs when going out for the first time. “So when I heard Dino had died, it reminded me what a fucked up life I have sometimes and that when he went he took some of the good times with him.” (Luna quoted in Blocker 29) In this scene, Luna uses the memory of somebody stereotypically belonging to the white culture and transforms him to a memento belonging to him and to his whole tribe, as well. He shows that a memory can mean one thing to one person and a completely different thing to someone else. By doing this, he states that Natives have as much right to take up items or memories from white culture as it has happened the other way around for centuries. Thus, he tries to reverse the power structure of memory-making and memory-taking.

Works cited

Blocker, Jane. “Failure of Self-Seeing: James Luna Remembers Dino.” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art January 2001: 18-32. Web. 24 May 2014.

Luna, James A. „I’ve Always Wanted to Be an American Indian.“ Art Journal Autumn 1992: 18-27. Web. 23. May 2014.


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