Installation view, James Luna: Take a Picture with a Real Indian at Garth Greenan Gallery, New York (all images courtesy Garth Greenan Gallery)

Nearly 20 years ago — on April 2, 1991, to be exact — James Luna (1950–2018) stood on a platform inside the Whitney Museum of American Art, downtown at Federal Reserve Plaza, and 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.

From what I can gather, two shots were taken with Polaroids, while another camera documented the performance, including members of the audience, in black and white, and a video camera recorded the entire event.

The props used in this performance, along with a sampling of the photographs and videos, are presented in the exhibition James Luna: Take a Picture with a Real Indian, at Garth Greenan Gallery (September 10–December 19), the first since the artist’s death.

Installation view, James Luna: Take a Picture with a Real Indian at Garth Greenan Gallery, New York. Left: James Luna, “Half Indian/Half Mexican” (1991), silver gelatin print, 64 x 144 inches; right: “Half Indian/Half Mexican” (2010), chromogenic print 60 x 144 inches

In addition to artifacts, photographs, and videos from that fabled performance, the gallery has presented two sets of three large-scale photographs, both titled “Half Indian/Half Mexican” (1991 and 2010), one in black and white and the other in color. The proximity of these projects underscores Luna’s preoccupation with identity.

Being of Payómkawichum, Ipi, and Mexican descent, Luna explored how he was seen in “Half Indian/Half Mexican.” Each photo set consists of three views of Luna: right profile, frontal, and left profile.

In the color set, which is dated 2010 and echoes the earlier black and white work, the leftmost photograph shows him in profile, facing right; his face is clean shaven and his shoulder-length, salt-and-pepper hair is tucked behind his ear. The profile shot of his left side shows him with a beard and mustache, his hair combed so that it does not hang down. In the frontal view his visage is split between the two looks.

The profile shots, each literally showing a different side of Luna’s face, look impassively at the middle image of his partially shaven face.

James Luna, Take a Picture with a Real Indian (1991) (detail)

I moved a chair placed in front of the platform with the three cut-outs of Luna to sit with these photographs. I suppose part of it has to do with being biracial, with having a father who was half-English and half-Chinese, and being mistaken for other ethnicities in my life, but I don’t think that was the only reason I sat in front of these photographs for a long time, reflecting upon what I saw: a man looking at his mixed identity from two different perspectives.

The division in Luna’s face stirred up so many feelings I have had about the emphasis America places on identity and the abhorrence I have felt in my life about claims to racial purity and assimilation, and the judgments made solely on the basis of the way someone looks. I hardly think I am alone in this.

Luna was preoccupied with self-presentation in a society that, in its pursuit of whiteness, has never been able to recognize Native Americans as individuals, choosing either to invent or demean them. The art world is not free from this onerous behavior.

One only has to look at Andy Warhol’s portfolio of 10 prints, Cowboys and Indians (1986), which includes images of John Wayne, Annie Oakley, and President Theodore Roosevelt, alongside General George Armstrong Custer, to see how deeply imbedded America’s denial of the genocidal destruction of Native Americans remains to its self-image.

Installation view, James Luna: Take a Picture with a Real Indian at Garth Greenan Gallery, New York

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 (1991), Luna directly challenges this widespread denial, as he makes the viewer complicit, as both participant and witness.

As with “Half Indian/Half Mexican,” I was riveted by the video clips of what happened at Luna’s carefully staged, seemingly casual performance. The fact that the performance was spread across three monitors made it difficult to see the entire spectacle; my attention shifted (as it might have had I been there) from one incident to another.

This was Luna’s genius; he consistently made work that cut through America’s refusal of Native American self-representation, while, at the same time, exposing the nation’s ugly, deeply ingrained history and perpetuating mechanisms, from sports team names and logos to, as he said in his performance, the “names of cars and trucks.” He did this with an unrivaled economy, and by pulling the audience in and making them participants.

James Luna, Take a Picture with a Real Indian (1991) (detail)

I kept wondering what the people who stood next to Luna and had their photo taken would have said about the experience. Was it just a fun thing to do at an art event? Or was it more than that? Did the participants learn anything from the experience? Did they think it about later, as time passed? What about the families? That’s really what held my attention — seeing parents and children standing beside Luna, as if he were an object, which in some sense he was. I admit, I could not stop looking and wondering.

Ideally, the Whitney Museum, which hosted this performance, would add the documentation to its collection and periodically exhibit it in the museum lobby.

Even though years have passed since Luna walked through the audience, saying the words I cited at the beginning of this review, and climbed onto the platform, it spoke directly to me and, I would like to think, to anyone who sat down and opened up to what they saw.

James Luna: Take a Picture with a Real Indian continues at Garth Greenan Gallery (545 West 20th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 19.

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John Yau

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook,...

3 replies on “How James Luna Exposed the Mechanisms of American Racism”

  1. I recall feeling a combination of mortification, sadness, and anger. It was one of those art moments that truly transcended the particulars of that situation .

  2. Warhol did make a memorable series of portraits of Russell Means.

    And his images of cowboys were surely detourned into a Queer context.

    But yes America has shamefully treated First Nations Peoples with great inhumanity.

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