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James Luna Photo

James Luna

Luiseño, Puyukitchum, Ipai, and Mexican-American Performance Artist, Installation Artist, and Photographer

Born: February 9, 1950 - Orange, California
Died: March 4, 2018 - New Orleans, Louisiana
"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."
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James Luna
"It is my feeling that artwork in the media of performance and installation offers an opportunity like no other for Indian people to express themselves without compromise in traditional art forms of ceremony, dance, oral traditions and contemporary thought."
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James Luna
"I truly live in two worlds. This 'two world' concept once posed too much ambiguity for me, as I felt torn as to whom I was. In maturity I have come to find it the source of my power, as I can easily move between these two places and not feel that I have to be one or the other, that I am an Indian in this modern society."
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James Luna
"I think somewhere in the mess, many Indian artist 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."
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James Luna
"I'm half Indian and half Mexican. I'm half many things. I'm half compassionate/I'm half unfeeling. I'm half happy/I'm half angry. I'm half educated/I'm half ignorant [...] I'm half giving/I'm half selfish: A self made up of many things, I do not have to be anything for anybody but myself."
5 of 6
James Luna
"My appeal for humor in my work comes from Indian culture where humor can be a form of knowledge, critical thought, and perhaps just used to ease the pain. I think we Indians live in worlds filled with it and I want to relate that in my works."
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James Luna

Summary of James Luna

James Luna, an artist/activist of Native American/Mexican heritage, turned to photography, Performance, Video, and Installation art, as a way of disassembling myths about Native American cultures. One of the most celebrated of all contemporary Native artists, Luna routinely unpacked racial stereotypes and unequal institutional power structures, but he was not in the business of simply promoting the values of his people and their culture. Luna chose to lay bare the tragic and contradictory realities facing Native communities. His autobiographical performances, that touched on subjects such as his own diabetes diagnosis, and his ongoing struggles with alcohol, were indicative of the plight of Native life more widely. He once said, "not everybody can talk about that, so I guess that makes me a dangerous character". In order to communicate these "dangerous" and difficult ideas, Luna often disarmed his audiences with candid humor and irony.


  • Luna's worldview was epitomized by his best-known performance, Artifact Piece (1985-87). He laid his own near-naked and scarred body in a museum display case surrounded with a collection of everyday personal items. The contents of the display case (including the artist) were labeled in the same way archaeological objects would be displayed in a museum. As a living and breathing human artifact Luna challenged exhibition practices that had assigned Native American history and culture to natural history museums. With this performance, Luna effectively announced that Native art and culture was multifaceted, and, indeed, very much alive (like the artist himself).
  • Luna favored autobiographical art because, in his words, "If you sacrifice yourself [then the performance] becomes much more dynamic". In video works such as History of the Luiseño People: La Jolla Reservation and Christmas, A.A. Meeting/Art History (both 1990)Luna called attention to his own alcohol dependency and, by proxy, the problems of substance dependency that was widespread within modern Native communities. These works went further, however, in the way they delivered a symbolic commentary on colonialism and its toxic legacy for the day-to-day lives of Native peoples.
  • Luna used humor as a means of both captivating and challenging his audience. For instance, his photographic self-portrait triptych, Half Indian/Half Mexican (1991), amounted to an amusing commentary on issues pertaining to his dual (Indian and Mexican) ethnic identities. As he explained "My appeal for humor in my work comes from Indian culture where humor can be a form of knowledge, critical thought, and perhaps just used to ease the pain. I think we Indians live in worlds filled with it and I want to relate that in my works".
  • Luna was a pioneer in forging new paths for Native artists. By gaining a foothold in the greater art world, his irreverent Performance art allowed audiences to re-think Native culture and widened the scope of contemporary exhibition practices and entrenched historical narratives. Indeed, through the interventions of Luna, and others such as Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, contemporary Native American culture has become integral to college curricula and artworld conversations surrounding institutional critique and Identity art.

The Life of James Luna

James Luna pictured in 2011

Photographer and curator Patricio Chavez argues that "[Luna] has a fearlessness and a willingness to use his body - the body politic to interrogate a range of identity-based issues, and that he did it with a way of disarming people, while being right on in his critique".

Important Art by James Luna

Progression of Art

Artifact Piece

One of Luna's earliest performances, and still perhaps his most famous, Artifact Piece was first presented in 1987 at the San Diego Museum of Man, and again in 1990 at the Studio Museum in Harlem as part of The Decade Show. (According to the museum's own publicity, "The Decade Show reflects true community diversity, as well as the museum's interest in examining 'parallel cultures' obscured by traditional aesthetics".) Artifact Piece sees Luna lying motionless on his back atop a layer of sand, wearing only a breechcloth, in an open museum display case. He is surrounded by personal effects, such as his favorite music albums and books, his Native medicine objects, his divorce papers, his university degree certificates, and a collection of personal photographs. Labels that describe the objects (as one would expect in a regular anthropological display), as well as the scars on Luna's body (earned from various altercations and bar fights), are a vital component of the performance.

Citing institutional representations of Native Americans such as those on display at the anthropological Museum of Man in San Diego, California, Luna said, "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". Latin genealogy scholar Ellen Fernandez-Sacco argues that Luna's performances "in nontraditional spaces expose the violence in display practices and critique the transformation of humans into objects. [...] In disrupting the observer's expectations, Luna seeks to reveal the stakes involved in attending the museum".

Integral to the success of the performance/s was the audiences' reaction. Many viewers were shocked to realize the body the display case was living and breathing, with some even venturing to touch him (to test if he was living). The artist later commented, "it was a very trying - physically, mentally, spiritually - experience for me. [...] I was overweight at the time [and] there were my moldy toenails, and my scars and, you know, I just wasn't looking good. But that was part of it. I wasn't there to be a Disney Indian brave. I was just there as a regular Indian person that looked more like me than some romantic notion of a long-haired, six-five warrior". Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Studies at Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver, Richard William Hill, said of the performance," Artifact Piece is special. It is one of those works that manages to concentrate many important, emergent ideas into a single gesture at just the right moment - in this case the moment when many Indigenous people were struggling urgently to theorize and express their concerns about their representation in museums. So, while I think there are other of his works that are as good, that combination of prescient timing and flawless execution have made Artifact Piece iconic".



Half Indian/Half Mexican

Luna created the photographic triptych Half Indian/Half Mexican as a means of asking the questions: "Who's an Indian? If you're part Indian, what's the other part? How does that influence you? Does it make you less? Does it make you more?". Luna accepted that he had no answer to these questions, but that he was perfectly justified in asking them. The three simple black and white self-portrait images show the artist's face in profile view from left and right sides, and, in the center image, frontally. He has styled his hair and facial hair differently on either side of his head, with his hair appearing short on one side and longer on the other, and with one half of his mustache shaved off. He also wears a pendant earring on his right profile (where his hair is longer). The result is that he appears stereotypically Mexican on one side; Native American on the other. Moreover, the format recalls police mugshots, alluding to the association of Native Americans and Mexicans with criminality.

At the time of this work's creation, Luna stated that, though he felt "torn between two worlds" earlier in life, but as he matured he realized that in his interracial background he had found "the source of my power, as I can easily move between these places and not feel that I have to be one or the other". He added, "I'm half many things. I'm half compassionate/I'm half unfeeling. I'm half happy/I'm half angry. I'm half educated/I'm half ignorant. I'm half drunk/I'm half sober. I'm half giving/I'm half selfish: A self made up of many things, I do not have to be anything for anybody but myself. I have survived long enough to find this out. I am forty-one years old and am happy with my whole - self".

Half Indian/Half Mexican comes across as a tongue-in-cheek exploration of issues pertaining to his racial identities. Indeed humor was a common thread throughout his oeuvre. As he explained "My appeal for humor in my work comes from Indian culture where humor can be a form of knowledge, critical thought, and perhaps just used to ease the pain. I think we Indians live in worlds filled with it and I want to relate that in my works".

Three silver gelatin prints (triptych) - Museum of Modern Art, New York


Take a Picture with a Real Indian

Arts writer Domenick Ammirati notes that "Over the years, Take a Picture with a Real Indian has become textbook fodder for discussions of performance art, identity politics, and institutional critique". It was first performed at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1991, on Columbus Day, the day celebrates the date that Columbus arrived in the "New World". For many Native people, Columbus Day is symbolic of the first arrival of the settlers who attempted eradicate their descendants. The performance invited gallery visitors to stand next to him for their own photograph. Two polaroids were taken of each participating visitor with one given to them to take away and the other kept by the artist as documentation. Luna repeated the performance several times in following years, but with life-size cutout photographs, showing him bedecked in various Native outfits.

Luna described the first live performance as "mutual humiliation": the artist treated like an object on display for the viewer's entertainment, while the viewers made fools of themselves for participating in this blatant act of cultural appropriation. Luna said "[it] was one of the more ultimate audience participation pieces that I scripted. I was unaware of the impact it would have. That piece could have been a disaster if nobody wanted to be involved or they wanted to get up and sing and dance. But what it created was a conversation amongst the people in the room as to whether they should or not [pose for a picture]. But when I came out in my regalia, I knew that it would get that response from the audience. Everybody went for it. There was a big ooh and aah when I stepped up on that pedestal with my war dance outfit. They forgot about all the rest and really lined up to have their picture taken. This is the memento that they really wanted. Even people that were art savvy fell for it".

In his critique, the art critic John Yau compared Luna's performance to Andy Warhol's 1986 portfolio of 10 prints, Cowboys and Indians, which includes images of John Wayne, Annie Oakley, and President Theodore Roosevelt, alongside General George Armstrong Custer. He wrote, "Instead of doing any real research into the subject, Warhol took photographs of artifacts in the National Museum of the American Indian, New York, and paired them with mass media images. Long interested in surfaces, Warhol, in this project, arrived at something that was superficial and lazy. In his performance Take a Picture with a Real Indian, Luna directly challenges this widespread denial, as he makes the viewer complicit, as both participant and witness".



History of the Luiseño People: La Jolla Reservation, Christmas 1990

In this work, which media professor Kathleen McHugh describes as "mundane twenty-seven minute narrative" and a "theatrically-staged autobiographical performance", was produced in collaboration with filmmaker, Isaac Artenstein. Luna is seen sitting alone in a dark room in front of a television, drinking as he calls up friends and family members to cancel on their festive invitations. McHugh notes that the work "seems to proffer the everyday and stereotypical in perplexing relation to the historiographical ambition of its title. In that perplexing relation, however, Luna and Artenstein fully exploit performance art and artisanal video's respective engagements with autobiographical life-narratives to embody and enact the fundamental problems of history and self-representation confronting Native people". Luna stated, "in the work there is a thin line between what is fictional and what is non-fiction, and what is real emotion and what is art. [...] There is a cultural element where I let, or seem to let, people in on American Indian cultures. There are also elements in the work about American culture that everyone can identify with, and that makes for an understanding that we are all more alike than different".

This is one of a series of works where Luna calls attention to his own relationship with alcohol as well as the problems of alcohol and substance dependency that is widespread within Native communities. Another video, which formed part of his his 1990 istalation, A.A. Meeting/Art History (1990), for instance, begins with four people at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting discussing their struggles with alcoholism. It features a lengthy monologue by Luna in which he drinks two forty-ounce beers while discussing the interdependency between his alcohol consumption and his art.

The AA Meeting/Art History installation also included the photographic self-portrait, The End of the Trail, which sees Luna recreate American sculptor James Earl Fraser's famous 1894 monument of the same name. Fraser's sculpture shows a Native American warrior slumped forward wearily on the back of a horse, holding a spear, whereas Luna's image shows him slumped forward on a wooden sawhorse holding a half-drunk liquor bottle (rather than a "heroic" spear). Author and postcolonial studies scholar Sanja Runtic writes that "the bottle in Luna's hand is [...] a commentary on the toxicity of colonialism, whose legacy of alcoholism, diabetes and social apathy still plagues Native America".

Video, color, sound


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

In his In my Dreams performance, Luna presents three interlocking scenarios all loosely connected by the themes of cultural authenticity and control. The performance starts with him dressed in plain clothing, garnishing an imaginary food item (in a plastic container) with real mustard, ketchup, salt, and artificial sweetener. He takes his time in preparing the food before producing a diabetes kit with which he tests his blood sugar levels before injecting himself with insulin. Recent figures had showed that 42 percent of those on his La Jolla Indian Reservation were suffering with the disease and were dependent on "the white man's medicine" to control the disease they were blamed for creating in the first place (possibly through the ready availability of junk food).

In the second act, Luna, his top half dressed in Native costume and headdress; his bottom half in regular black pants and red running shoes, rides a stationary pushbike while smoking and drinking from a can of beer. Behind him is projected scenes (without sound) from the movies, The Wild One and Easy Rider, both of which treat the motorcycle as a symbol of individualism and resistance; and both of which show that rebellion was finally being crushed by the dominant culture. In the third scenario, Luna remembers the recently deceased Italian American crooner and actor, Dean "Dino" Martin. A hugely popular figure with Luna, and amongst his community more generally, a picture of "Dino" is projected on a large screen behind Luna while he tells his audience of his memories of the singer: "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". In this scene, Luna was using the theme of memory - and how an icon of white American culture belonged to him and to his whole tribe too - to affect a reversal of the power structures in memory making.

Latin genealogy scholar Ellen Fernandez-Sacco observes that "In My Dreams oscillates between themes of identity, colonialism, and alcoholism, all riding on a cutting edge of humor". For arts writer Domenick Ammirati, "Luna deconstructs whatever is supposedly natural to a Native person - or anyone else for that matter - by exposing unpleasant facts and blowing up clichés through the vividness of his projections and the thorny vulnerability of his performances. This complex relation to the authentic makes Luna's work feel very contemporary indeed".



We Become Them

In this later photographic series, Luna juxtaposed images of Native American masks (from a book he found on Northwest Coast art) with color self-portraits that mimic the expressions carved on each mask. The series was inspired by a comment made by Haida artist Robert Davidson, who explained that when masks were used in ceremonial dances, "they were not understood to represent particular beings, but rather as allowing the dancer to become those beings". In typical Luna style, there is a humorous sensibility on display. As he explained: "I think Indian people are the funniest people in the world. And if you're around us long enough, there's this really funny, dry sense of humor about the strangest things or, thinking about stories that are tragic and figuring out how to talk about them. I found that we were talking about things that were tragic in a funny way. And then I realized what was happening: it was to ease the pain. In our world outlook - and maybe our world - there's a lot of things that were, and still are, painful".

Art historian Richard William Hill says of the work, "it seems to me to propose that art practice might be used to do art history, but in a way that falls outside art history's usual tool, writing. In the place of writing, we have a sensuous bodily mimesis that hopes to bridge a gap of cultural and historical distance to create a momentary fusion of identity. To me, this is a remarkable thing to attempt, let alone to carry off so convincingly". Luna himself stated that one of his most important subjects was "ethnic identity - how people perceive us and how we perceive ourselves. Not everybody can talk about that, so I guess that makes me a dangerous character".

Luna continued to produce new work and to exhibit across the United States until his fatal heart attack during a residency in New Orleans, Louisiana on March 4, 2018. He was 68 years of age. On the occasion of his death, Hill wrote "He was generous with the power he accrued from being able to move between worlds, using his success to help other Indigenous artists with mentorship and letters of support at times when they faced a great deal of institutionalized resistance to 'ethnic content' in their art. A number of Indigenous artists have told me over the years that Luna's comfort and confidence in the contemporary art world and his ability to address Indigenous issues without apology there inspired them to do the same".

Chromogenic Print - Garth Greenan Gallery, New York

Biography of James Luna


James Luna was born in Orange County, California in 1950. He was of Luiseño, Puyukitchum, and Ipai (indigenous peoples of California) descent on his mother's side, and of Mexican descent on his father's. Spending his younger years on the beaches of Orange County, he was often mistaken for a Hawaiian, and when asked which of the Hawaiian island he was from, he would simply respond: "The big one man. The big one".

Although Luna would not set up home on the La Jolla Indian Reservation (in the North County of San Diego) until his mid-twenties, he did spend time there on regular family visits during his youth. Luna explained that "Both my grandma and grandpa lived next door to us. And then on the other street lived my Mexican grandparents. Living next to both my grandparents shaped me culturally. My grandmother came from a family of eleven. And my father had a family of ten. So there were plenty of aunts and uncles and cousins all around. But the reservation connection continued because we'd have people come to visit or do seasonal work in the area. Or, we would go down to the reservation for what we call 'doings,' which might be a funeral or a festive occasion of some kind - a fiesta or something like that. So, that was really important to me - not to lose that bond".

Luna also noted that while he adopted his native culture and traditions from an early age, he did not adopt his native tongue. He explained, "my grandmother in particular would be beaten or punished for speaking the language when they were in Indian school, so they didn't see it as a vital thing; English was more important. And they had no people - nobody to speak to on a daily basis. They were from different tribes. When I grew up, I knew even less. But you know, there's another language, just like 'Spanglish.' There's an Indian English slang. So when I say, 'Oh, we're going to the mountains for some doings,' we know what that means. And depending on how we say it, it could be something religious, or it could be some kind of family gathering. And then there's a whole slew of gestures and grunts and things like that, that I grew up with, that helped me communicate better when I [moved to the reservation]".

Education and Early Training

Flag of the La Jolla Band of Luiseño Indians

Luna received his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of California, Irvine, in 1976. He followed with a Master of Science degree in counseling from San Diego University. When he was twenty-seven, Luna moved to the La Jolla Reservation, where he would live for the rest of his life. Richard William Hill, Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Studies at Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver, comments, "His home at La Jolla was fairly high up on the side of a mountain and Luna kept a single tall palm tree there near the edge of the slope as a reminder of his youth spent at the beach. Luna loved to travel and he loved to be at home at La Jolla. I think his career was fundamentally about the intersection - often in the form of his own performing body - between the place he lived and the many places he travelled".

While his earliest attempts at art were hard-edge paintings inspired by Native American beadwork and blanket designs, at university he was introduced to Performance and Installation art. He said later, "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".

Luna recalled how in one class critique his tutor took him to task for "using his culture", to which he retorted, "well what the fuck am I supposed to talk about?". He added, "I do not make pretty art. I make art about life [on La Jolla Reservation] and many times that life is not pretty [...] our problems are not unique, they exist in other Indian communities; that is the Indian unity that I know". However, he acknowledged that he was fortunate to be a student at a time when critical theory and activism was beginning to impose their influence on American arts and educational institutions. In 1982, Luna took up a teaching post at the University of California, San Diego, and worked as an academic counselor at Palomar College in San Marcos, California (a post he held for twenty-five years).

Mature Period

<i>Custer's Last Fight</i>, movie poster (1912). Luna's art railed against historical stereotypes of Native Americans in popular culture.

In 1986 Luna produced his first piece of video art, Drinking Piece. Running at 18 minutes, the color and sound film, dimly lit and shot in real time, shows Luna smoking cigarettes and consuming a six-pack of beer. Luna was alluding here to his personal battle with alcoholism and amongst the Native American community generally. Once he has finished the six-pack, he puts on his cowboy hat, exits the scene, and the film ends. Luna served as the director of La Jolla's education center in 1987, the same year he staged what is now widely considered his most important work, Artifact Piece, a performance/installation first staged at the San Diego Museum of Man (in 1987). Hill writes, "Artifact Piece addressed so many of the key themes that Indigenous artists of Luna's generation grappled with, including the problems of representation in popular culture and museums and how these systems of representation foreclosed contemporary Indigenous agency. Artifact Piece showed all too clearly how what the critic Jean Fisher described as 'the necrophilous codes of the museum' makes corpses out of living Indigenous bodies and cultures".

In 1990 Luna turned to video art once more with A. A. Meeting/Art History. The 28 minute film begins at an A. A. meeting where four individuals share stories about their struggles with alcohol addiction. Luna delivers a lengthy monologue in which he discusses his intertwined relationship with alcohol and art while drinking two 40 oz. beers. It is a tragicomic performance that engages simultaneously with the problem of alcoholism in his community, and representations of Native Americans within museums, and, indeed, throughout the timeline of Western art.

A year later, Luna performed Take a Picture with a Real Indian for the first time. As art critic John Yau describes, "[while he] stood on a platform inside the Whitney Museum of American Art, downtown at Federal Reserve Plaza, [Luna] invited members of the audience to join him by announcing:
Take a picture with a real Indian.
Take a picture, here tonight in New York City,
Take two. Leave one. Take one home.
America loves to say 'our Indians,'
America likes to name cars and trucks after our tribes and people.
America doesn't know me.
Take a picture with a real Indian.
Take a picture tonight, free.

A short distance in front of the platform, which was flanked by three cutouts of Luna (wearing a breechcloth in two and a short sleeve pullover shirt and beige pants in the third), a photographer with a Polaroid Instant Camera and a tripod-mounted camera waited to photograph whoever chose to join the artist".

Late Period and Death

In 1993 Luna produced History of the Luiseño People, a 29 minute video film. It sees the artist sat alone, drinking in a darkened room in front of a TV on Christmas Eve while he phones friends, lovers, and family members to excuse himself from their festive celebrations. Further video pieces followed. In 2000, Petroglyphs in Motion (32 minute film), sees Luna modeling on a makeshift catwalk in a collection of outfits representing stereotypes of Native Americans. The concept behind the performance gave rise to a 2002 photographic series (of the same name) consisting of eight self-portraits based on ancient petroglyph (rock) drawings. In the same year, Luna received a Creative Capital Award for his project Surreal Post Indian Blues and the Origin of the Sun and Moon. Reworking Native rituals and stereotypes, Luna took images from popular culture and juxtaposed them with scenes of everyday reservation life. It was the first time that Luna worked collaboratively (a musical director, and a video artist).

For the 2005 Venice Biennale Luna presented his Emendatio performance. It was played out in four parts within a circle of stones, littered with cans of SPAM, syringes, and insulin. Luna communicated with bodily jerks and gestures rather than words, and repeated the performance over four days, for four hours at a time (the number four was sacred to Luiseño Indians for who it conveyed the idea of permanence). By contrasting traditional Native rituals (represented by the circle of stones), interrupted with Western processed food (SPAM symbolising diabetes), Luna was offering a wry critique on the hybrid character of modern Native American identity.

In 2006, All Indian All the Time, a short video performance, Luna turned his attentions to American cultural icons. The video sees him superimpose his own image onto publicity photographs of rock musicians Bruce Springsteen and Jimi Hendrix as a means raising questions about American cultural identity and its connection (or disconnection) with/from Native culture. In 2010, Luna revived his Take a Picture with a Real Indian project. As The Garth Greenan Gallery describes, "[Luna] restaged the performance on the steps outside Union Station in Washington, D.C. [...] Presenting himself as a tourist attraction, the artist invited onlookers with the eponymous line, 'Take a picture with a real Indian.' As the crowd gathered, he continued: 'Take a picture here, in Washington, D.C,. on this beautiful Monday morning, on this holiday called Columbus Day.' Like many of his works, the performance deconstructed America's selective romanticization and shameless commodification of Native Americans". Luna produced another short performance video, We Become Them, in 2011. This work features a series of slides of masks, each one representing Indigenous cultures. As each slide appeared, Luna mimicked the mask through a contorted facial expressions.

From 1991 through 2017 Luna was the recipient of numerous grants and awards including a Painters & Sculptors Grant from the Joan Mitchell Foundation in 2010. Announcing the award, the Mitchell Foundation wrote, "With over 40 years of exhibition and performance experience, Luna has given voice to Native American cultural issues, pursued innovative and versatile media within his disciplines, and charted waters for other artists to follow. His powerful works transform gallery spaces into battlefields, where the audience is confronted with the nature of cultural identity, the tensions generated by cultural isolation, and the dangers of cultural misinterpretations - all from an Indigenous perspective". Luna extended his long list of honors in 2012 with an Honorary Doctorate of Humanities from the Institute of American Indian Arts, Santa Fe., in 2015 with a National Arts Fellowship from the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, and, in 2017, the year before his death (aged 68), a Guggenheim Fellowship.

According to arts writer and curator Rebecca Romani, "[Luna's] burial was attended by well over 150 people, including tribal members, family, friends, and colleagues, many of whom had done art shows with him, or had curated his work. As the clouds curled over the mountains above, mourners stood under a slight drizzle in the crisp air, listening to a series of speakers remember an artist whose work inspired others with its willingness to challenge conventional attitudes about Native Americans. Speaker after speaker spoke of Luna's fearlessness as an artist, his love of wordplay and incisive wit. At the end of the open casket service, people patiently lined up to pay their respects. [...] Luna lent his name, his voice, and his body to Native art and identity".

The Legacy of James Luna

Luna was one of the most important contemporary Native American artists, and his Performance art in particular forged a new path for Native artists to celebrate their identities within the contemporary art world. As art historian Ellen C. Caldwell writes, "Luna's work famously called attention to the way the largely white art world and historical narrative excludes, ignores, and re-imagines Native culture ..., questioning the ways that Native American Indians are often remembered, 'honored,' and pictured in the white imaginary. [...] Through physical and psychical interventions, James Luna's work is powerful, challenging, and integral to expanding art history's oft-constricting canon, exhibition practices, and imagined historical narratives". Indeed, much of his work has become central to curricula and discourse surrounding institutional critique and relational art.

The indigenous artist collective, Postcommodity, stated on Luna's passing, that "Each of us had a slightly different relationship with him. He was never a mentor, or anything like that. But he was good to us. He was always welcoming and generous and present. It will take many years to unravel the impacts of his art practice. He's one of a handful of important American Indian artists of his generation who built a path for radical, free, conceptually rigorous expression that bridged previously enormous gaps between Indian artists and the contemporary art world. All indigenous artists are better off because of Luna's contributions. It's an enormous legacy".

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
James Luna
Influenced by Artist
  • Allen Ginsberg
    Allen Ginsberg
  • No image available
    Jimmie Durham
  • No image available
    Robert Davidson
Friends & Personal Connections
  • Guillermo Gomez-Pena
    Guillermo Gomez-Pena
  • No image available
    Joanna Bigfeather
  • No image available
    Denise Uyehara
  • No image available
    Isaac Artenstein
Movements & Ideas
Friends & Personal Connections
  • Guillermo Gomez-Pena
    Guillermo Gomez-Pena
  • No image available
    Joanna Bigfeather
  • No image available
    Denise Uyehara
  • No image available
    Isaac Artenstein
Movements & Ideas
Open Influences
Close Influences

Useful Resources on James Luna

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Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd

"James Luna Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
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First published on 14 Feb 2024. Updated and modified regularly
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