The value of living art


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James Luna, Six Photographs

After reading Multicultural Art and self-representation: An Interview with Artist James Luna written by Klare Scarborough, I became very curious about this artist and his work. James Luna is an American Indian contemporary artist, who developed several exhibitions in museums and cultural centers over the last four decades. His work became famous all over the world, which, according to me, is understandable. I think Luna has a very unique and progressive way of presenting the complexity of human identity in his art. His work is about representing ethnic cultures (the Indian population) in museums, instead of the controversial way of presenting Indians as objects or the ‘other’ in natural historical museums. Because of the common and controversial way Indians were presented, Luna decided to make a statement by using his own body as an object in the art piece: The Artifact Piece. After this successful exhibition, Luna used performance and installation art more often and the use of his body returned in his other exhibitions.

The Artifact Piece, 1987 & 1991

The idea behind Luna’s work is involving visitors into the art piece. He wants to stimulate a discussion among the visitors and let them think of the Indian community and other minorities in a different way. His work is often radical, disturbing and confronting, and concerns social issues such as alcoholism, colonialism and violence. I think encouraging visitors to reflect and discuss social issues should be the main objective of a museum, so according to me he succeeded in that way. Luna wants to show that Indians are human beings like everyone else and not just objects with feathers and traditional leather clothing. He also shows the differences within the Indian community (or mixed roots). ‘It makes them appreciate the significance of cultural difference. Maybe we’re not such a melting pot, and that’s okay’, Luna says.


‘I think that in time people are going to see the value of living art’ – James Luna

When I visited Luna’s website, I even got more enthusiastic about his work. The idea of involving visitors into museums is an effective way to make people aware of ‘socially accepted’ and narrow-minded thoughts. Besides the absurd and mind-blowing The Artifact Piece, he has some other projects. In 2001 he created an exhibition where people could take a picture with ‘a real Indian’. His website shows an interesting short video about this art piece. The video shows a room full of visitors, waiting for something unknown. James Luna enters the room and asks the visitors if they would like a picture with ‘a real Indian’. He wears a ‘traditional’ Indian costume with feathers and leather. Some people are eager to do so immediately but the video shows also a small group of visitors who hesitate and a discussion starts. Some feel embarrassed were others are very enthusiastic about taking a picture with Luna. A woman calls the pictures political incorrect. After a few minutes Luna dresses into ‘normal’ clothes and asks the same question. Now significantly fewer visitors are willing to take a picture with this ‘real Indian’ who doesn’t look like one. I think this is a catchy way to let people think about the way some minorities are presented in society and in their minds.


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James Luna, ‘Take a picture with a real Indian’

I think, nowadays most museums no longer just require for positive reactions to collections, but are more concerned with response and interaction from the audience. Referring to multicultural art in the Netherlands, there are certainly similarities with Luna’s work. Especially human identity is central in a number of Dutch museums. In this regard, Luna is very progressive. For example, there is the exhibition Studio Aleppo about refugees or ‘new Dutch’ in the Humanity House in The Hague. In this exhibition, the photographer shows that newcomers are no ‘different’ kind of human beings but just the same as other people living in the city. The neutral setting of the photography studio negates the differences between the two groups. Like Luna’s work, this exhibition encourages people to think twice about judging minorities. Nevertheless, I have not spotted a living object in a Dutch museum yet. There are a lot of interactive museums, so I think it would fit perfectively. I hope to see that kind of art in the future!


Lisa Aarsen