A few words in remembrance of James Luna and his artistic fearlessness.

The world of performance art suffered a great loss when artist James Luna passed away at the beginning of this month. A resident of the La Jolla reservation, Luna was a highly respected figure of the California Native community. As someone who considers La Jolla and its surroundings somewhat of a second home, I have seen first hand how revered and admired Luna is in those parts. His importance, however, transcends geography and his work has been particularly relevant to recent discussions of cultural misrepresentation and appropriation. With a president who casually refers to his Native American co-workers as “Pocahontas”, the current political climate needs every strong voice of objection and protest it can summon. Luna was indeed one such voice and many of his pieces were conceived to actively disrupt the romanticized commodification of Native culture. In the performance “Take a Picture With a Real Indian”, for instance, Luna targets the gap between the popular image of Indians and Indians as actual human beings.


Luna originally staged the performance at Union Station in Washington D.C. in 1991. The performance consisted of Luna taking up a spot and proclaiming to bypassers: “Take a picture with a real Indian. Take a picture here, in Washington, D.C. on this beautiful Monday morning, on this holiday called Columbus Day. America loves to say ‘her Indians.’ America loves to see us dance for them. America likes our arts and crafts. America likes to name cars and trucks after our tribes. Take a picture with a real Indian. Take a picture here today, on this sunny day here in Washington, D.C.”

Being photographed together with strangers who saw him primarily as an object would not surprisingly take a toll on his pride and Luna would end the performance when he felt too upset or humiliated to continue.


The video above is from a more recent recreation of the performance but here too the discomfort is clearly visible. This discomfort seem to be shared by performer and participants alike. Sometimes it’s unclear why the people in the audience want to have their picture taken together with Luna. Are they clued into the motives behind the performance or do they respond to the exotic nature of the offer, as if being photographed with an Indian is an opportunity as rare as meeting a lion. Maybe the participants themselves don’t really know. And this confusion and uncertainty is testament to the success of the work. The performance opens a space for the audience to question their own reception of exotic constructs.

Luna was reportedly trained by the mythical Bas Jan Ader who disappeared at sea during the creation of one of his art pieces. Although he didn’t go to quite the same extremes as Ader, Luna did make his own body his primary artistic medium. This made Luna’s work particularly challenging. Other Native artists may have tackled the same subjects as Luna, but the fact that he used his own body lends an confrontational and physical poignancy to topics and themes that might otherwise remain confined to the intellectual realm.

Luna’s physical methods were particularly effective when he located his critique to the institutional practices of museums. In “The Artifact Piece” (performed in 1987 at the San Diego Museum of Man) Luna put his own body on display, laying it down in the museum among other historical objects. Thinking he was a lifeless object of exhibition, some visitors would touch his body and experience a slight shock upon finding it a living and breathing entity. It is one thing to verbally point out the discrepancies between the Native American as historical artifact found in museums and Native American as a living and thriving culture. But to stage this discrepancy through one’s own body is quite another thing and the piece had a huge impact among Native artistic communities.

Personally, I knew James Luna only very superficially. A few years ago James Luna reached out to me with the proposition of collaborating on something in Sweden. Nothing materialized, however, and I sadly regret that the opportunity now has passed. Among many of the artists represented by Kiva Gallery, James Luna is spoken of with the highest admiration and respect. Luna struck a rare balance of fearlessness, humour and sensitivity in his art, and for this his influence will doubtlessly live on.


Standing Rock and Artistic Protest




If nothing else, we can be grateful to President Trump that there is more political art and music now than we have seen in a long time. To realize that art flourishes in times when there is much too protest about you only need to scroll through your daily Instagram feed and look for Trump-related posts. The aspect of his presidency that has perhaps sparked some of the most thematically specific art concerns the pipeline in North Dakota. When Trump reversed Obama’s cancellation of the completion of the pipeline through Sioux territory, art became a central component in the protests against it. Now that the protesters have been evacuated from their camps and work has begun to finish the controversial pipeline, the artistic protests that are still being produced proves that the struggle is far from over.

One of the more effective artistic interventions into the conflict was Cannupa Hanska Luger’s mirrored shields. Using cheap masonite and adhesive mirrors, Hanska Luger crafted shields that were passed out among by the protesters. This, however, was more than an act of rearmament to match the equipment of the police who often carry shields at demonstrations. According to Hanska Luger the reflective surfaces on the shields would reveal to the policing forces the shared la-cmiranda-1482896132-snap-photohumanity “underneath their uniforms—and [make them] realize that they are also on our side” (http://theartnewspaper.com/news/artist-creates-mirrored-shields-for-standing-rock-protesters/). The shields thus function as protection against bodily harm but also as a peaceful deterrent to any kind of violent confrontations.
The shields were also used in a performance that can be seen here:  http://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/2016/12/04/hundreds-mirror-shields-used-standing-rock-art/94961662/

Cannupa Hanska Luger explains the role of the artist: “Artists, we live on the periphery. But we are the mirrors. We are the reflective points that break through a barrier.” (http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/miranda/la-et-cam-cannupa-hanska-luger-20170112-story.html)

That is the power of art in times of conflict. It is more than just a polarized opinion that can easily enough be dismissed by those who take the opposite stance. As such, it has the power to break through barriers. Here is some more art that tries to do just that.


Kenzie Townsend











Teaching Jimmy Nelson a lesson on the importance of listening

Currently, Jimmy Nelson’s photographic project “Before They Pass Away” is touring the world. As the somewhat dramatic title indicates, the theme is extinction, and the subjects of this supposed extinction are indigenous cultures. From Inuit tribes in Northern Siberia to Argentinian Gauchos in the South, Nelson has travelled the widths and lengths of the globe to unearth cultures almost entirely disconnected from modern society.

The project has been both celebrated and criticized. Visually speaking, the photographs are without a doubt impressive. When the exhibition visited Fotografiska Museet in Stockholm last year, I was myself immediately seduced by the gigantic glossy tableaus. So big are they that they let you immerse yourself in widespread landscapes as well as the slightest ornamental detail on the items of clothing. Visual seduction aside, however, something starts to chafe when getting deeper into the information and statements accompanying the project. This is far from an objective anthropological exposé. Nelson makes no qualms about it. In the statement accompanying the exhibition, Nelson’s photographs are said to be entirely subjective. They do not seek to capture the truth. The figures are obviously posed, romanticized and beautified. In Nelson’s words they are made up to be “icons” rather than real, everyday people. Okay, one thinks, so are the photos to be read as some sort of postmodernist interrogation of the notion of truth? It would be one thing if it was, but Nelson’s influences lean more toward Edward S. Curtis than Jean-Francois Lyotard, so in fact it’s quite the opposite. In other places he even considers himself a “collector of truth”. The question inevitably poses itself – how can one be both the representative of truth and yet highly subjective? No doubt there seems to be some confusion about Nelson’s conceptual pediments. Many have been understandably offended by Nelson’s reckless wielding of his flimsy version of truth and the project has suffered severe critique from Survival International (http://www.survivalinternational.org/news/10244) as well as representatives of the very cultures he photographs ( http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2014/oct/29/jimmy-nelson-indigenous-people-survival-international). What they have objected to is how Nelson presents these cultures as threatened by modern life when they show no signs of disappearing, but also the idealized manner in which they appear in the photos.

As a Swedish gallery dealing in Native American art, I can relate to Nelson’s position. I am by necessity an outsider to the culture I am interested in. I want the objects that are exhibited in my gallery to be beautiful, but I also want them to say something about the cultural background from which they originate. Not always does this fit into my what my expectations tell me. One way of making the job easier is through personal contact with the artists. All of the art in Kiva Gallery are chosen on the basis of a personal relationship with the artists. I have visited them in their homes. I have talked to them. I’ve been in awe. I’ve disagreed. I’ve been wide-eyed and I’ve been disappointed. I’ve been human to them and they have been human to me. I have listened to their stories and as a result I’ve sometimes had to revise my preconceptions. It doesn’t really seem like Nelson has listened to the stories of the people he portrays. If he had he would know that the Dani people of West Papua don’t like to be called the “most dreaded head-hunting tribe of Papua” (http://www.survivalinternational.org/news/10628).
Not once in my encounters with Native Americans have I heard talk of the culture dying out. And If Nelson had listened I doubt that he would have heard it. My point is that marginalized people should be allowed to be in charge of their own narrative.th

The problem is that Nelson tries to be both an artist and an anthropologist. Considering the scarcity of documentation around the cultures Nelson targets, the artist and the anthropologist are far from comfortable bedfellows. As an artist, Nelson is free to do whatever he feels like with his subjects. But an anthropologist doesn’t have – or shouldn’t have – that freedom. An artistically distorted image needs an anthropologically “true” image as a counterweight, otherwise there is no way to recognize the distortion. But if no other images exist, Nelson’s image becomes the primary point of reference and thereby artificiality easily becomes the “true” image. This becomes an issue considering that Nelson merits himself on capturing cultures that are infamously hard to access, which is to say that documentation is very scarce. Nelson has to make a choice: either the images are to be considered as a purely subjective expression of an artist’s vision or objective anthropological documentation. Having it both ways leaves Nelson open to the charge of misrepresentation and falsification.

Of course, Nelson means well – he wants the world to see how beautiful the people he meets are. Nothing wrong with that. The problem is that such a shallow approach is simply not enough to live up to his grander ethnographic ambitions. In his TED talk, Nelson gives a taste of just how shallow his vision th-1of truth really is. In a slideshow of his photographs, Nelson includes an image of a group of Samburu Warriors, shot from the back. The figures, Nelson claims, are often mistaken for women. He then shows the frontal view – tadaa, they’re men! The point of this little demonstration is to encourage us to “look closer, for things are not always what they seem”. If Nelson’s vision of the truth is as superficial as that it goes without saying that his claims of the photos as an “important ethnographic record” should be disqualified. Elissa Washuta has faulted Nelson’s preoccupation with visual cues of identity and notes that, “Personal strongholds of identity are often invisible.“ (http://www.salon.com/2013/11/24/americas_w
). Which is to say that Nelson would do well to focus on factors other than mere superficial appearance. This might be much to ask of a photographer. But what if Nelson instead of dressing his subjects up to look as exotic and obsolete as possible had asked them to be photographed with something that was important to them. Maybe someone had wanted to be portrayed with their iPhone playing – I don’t know – Candy Crush. All of a sudden a more complex picture comes to light, one that is not compatible with generalizing and dramatic claims about dying cultures. Sadly, Nelson doesn’t allow for such mixtures of tradition and progress. His narrative is already in place, and it is one where his photographs stands as the last heroic record of vanished cultures.

There is a glaring absence of Native North American cultures from Nelson’s project. The exclusion was consciously made by Nelson on grounds that North American tribes haven’t retained their heritage. Not only is this a deeply insulting claim but it also bears witness to how limited and antiquated Nelson’s ethnographic guidelines are. It goes to show that Nelson’s conclusion is already in place even before he has started his photographic documentation. As a result, Nelson has put himself in the unflattering and eminently colonialist position of judging was is and is not to be considered as authentic to a culture. Similar judgments of authenticity often guided the practice of Nelson’s hero Edward S. Curtis. Just like Nelson, Curtis would dress up his subjects and pose them for the camera. But sometimes an unwelcome reality would still intrude. Curtis would then have to alter photographs after being shot to fit his view of how things should be (http://www.salon.com/2013/11/24/americas_wrongheaded_obsession_with_vanishing_indigenous_peoples/ ). In a portrait of Little Plume and his son Yellow Kidney, for instance, Curtis retouched the picture to remove an alarm clock that he deemed incompatible with the preconceived simple ways of the Native. It’s a paradoxical and self-defeating way of documentation. On the one hand the presumed likeness of photography is utilised to bring us closer to cultures most have very little knowledge about. But on the other hand subjective judgments of what is and what is not part of the culture brings us farther away from the present realities of these cultures.

If Nelson had listened more he would have realised that change does not necessarily equal death. A lot of the cultures he portrays have changed from what they were a hundred years ago. That does not mean they are about to disappear.
Native Americans today watch TV, they listen to Beyoncé or Taylor Swift, they skateboard. This does not mean that they “havent retained their heritage”. They also hold traditional ceremonies, pow-wows and sweat lodges. This diversity has not led to cultural death. On the contrary Natives are quite proud of their culture which today includes both traditional and modern elements.
And if Nelson would have allowed his subjects to speak louder than his camera I doubt they would have spoken of death.