A sketch of the artist

A sketch of the artist

James Luna, Artifact piece, 1987
James Luna, Artifact piece, 1985-1987

We’re back in Wellington and James has returned home to work on shaping what will be the One Day Sculpture project. As I mentioned, this post covers a bit about James’ practice by looking at a few works.

James Luna has been creating visual art, interdisciplinary exhibitions and performances that are informed by his native culture for over three decades.

He is probably best known for the work Artifact piece, above. For this work he lay in a display case, with some of his possessions and explanatory labels around him. (This piece was recently re-presented at the National Museum of the American Indian by artist Erica Lord.)

James continually challenges the view, still often presented, of native people and cultures as static and traditional practices as the only ‘authentic’ ones. To do this he incorporates tradition and history with modern technology to speak of current issues declaring them to be authentic.

Richard Lou
End of the Frail, James Luna, mixed media installation, 1990-91, various sites. Photo: Richard Lou

James’ cultural references draw on his American background including his Native American Indian and Mexican heritage as well as the influences of other indigenous peoples, colonial settlers and of course contemporary America. The work at right is an example of this type of referencing.

You may recognise the sculpture it refers to as the End of the Trail by James Earle Fraser. The sculpture was the original work, and has subsequently been widely reproduced on posters, belt buckles and many other places. A google image search for the End of the Trail will give you an idea of the use of the highly romanticised image.

Incidentally, the original sculpture is now held at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.

James’ version of the work is a ‘ tableau variation on End of the Trail, Luna mimics the same lifeless pose, but the pony has been replaced by a weathered sawhorse, and the spear by a bottle of liquor. Nobility has been replaced by pathos.’ (Stephen Durland).

James Luna
James Luna

Some work-in-progress  involves masks and characterisation. James recently spent some time with a photographer performing characters. His reference points were late 19th and early 20th century Native American masks and carvings used for performances and ceremony. He didn’t reproduce specific masks, but rather just moved through expressions and characterisations freely as the photographer shot pictures. These images might end up being used on TV screens stacked like a video totem pole.

James Luna
James Luna

You can see  examples of the type of masks that James had in mind while he was working on these expressions of character by searching the National Museum of the American Indian collection database.

Here is a mask by the Gitxsan (Gitksan) people

James has also performed with Chicano artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña in their ongoing project The Shame-man meets El Mexican’t.

James Luna is unafraid to push buttons to defy the stereotypes. His stories are not those of the nice Indian storyteller – they can be painful – but he also uses well placed irony, parody and humour in his delivery as a strategy to diffuse the tension that so often surrounds cultural stereotypes.

UPDATE: Due to unforseen circumstances James Luna’s project Urban (Almost) Rituals has been postponed. James is unable to make it to New Zealand at this time. We are planning to reschedule the project. Check the Te Papa website and/or the One Day Sculpture website for updates. Sorry for any inconvenience.

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