James Luna, “Artifact Piece”

Continuing their exploration of subversion in the museum, Marabou looks to performance artist James Luna. In 1987, Luna laid down in a vitrine at the Museum of Man in San Diego. He wore just a loin cloth and was surrounded by objects including divorce papers, records, photos, and his college degree. Museum labels explained aspects of Luna’s body, such as scars, and the surrounding objects. A number of people touched him, disobeying the almost universal museum rule: do not touch. From time to time, Luna would stretch or yawn, disrupting the visitor’s expectations and objectifying gaze. This performance came to be known as “Artifact Piece.” Luna was commenting on the standard museum practices of presenting indigenous cultures as natural history (objectifying instead of humanizing, presenting difference as curiosity) and of the past (implying indigenous people and cultures no longer exist). Luna was a living and breathing human in the exhibit, challenging the idea that native people are extinct. The objects surrounding him explained that “a modern Indian” likes music, went to school, and keeps photos of family and friends, just like the gawking museum visitor.

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“Artifact Piece,” James Luna (1987), Museum of Man in San Diego, California. Photo from the JStor Daily article, “How Luiseño Indian Artist James Luna Resists Cultural Appropriation.”

In a Smithsonian interview, Luna explained one driving force behind his work,

“I had long looked at representation of our peoples in museums and they all dwelled in the past. They were one-sided. We were simply objects among bones, bones among objects, and then signed and sealed with a date. In that framework you really couldn’t talk about joy, intelligence, humor, or anything that I know makes up our people.”

In “Take a Picture with a Real Indian,” Luna highlighted the unabashed cooption of indigenous cultures into U.S. popular culture. During the performance he stated, “America like to name cars and trucks after our tribes. America like to name film festivals after our sacred dances.” In this work and others, Luna decries the romanticizing of Native American cultures because it shields people from the truth. Below is a video of a 2011 re-staging of “Take a Picture with a Real Indian.”

Luna’s work explored indigenous identity within the contexts of whiteness and the United States. As a Puyukitchum (Luiseño)-Ipai-Mexican-American, Luna also served as an artistic voice for indigenous nations in California who are often overlooked in discussions of Native American art and culture. Luna unexpectedly passed away in March of 2018. At the time he was doing a residency in New Orleans. Up until his passing, Luna actively drew attention to and challenged the way Native Americans are represented in museums, popular culture, and history. Despite all the progress made in museum display, interpretation, and exhibition design from the 1980s until now, “Artifact Piece” and its critique is still very relevant and applicable today today. This reality echoes a line from “Take a Picture with a Real Indian” in which Luna said, “America like romance, more than they like the truth.”

Rest in Power, James.

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