To say James Luna "performs" would be inaccurate. Instead, Luna—an internationally recognized Native American contemporary artist—prefers to call his appearances "performative lectures," because his goal is to inform just as much as it is to entertain, despite his offbeat costumes that often involve something similar to a Speedo, and his tendency to incorporate videos and other multimedia tools.
He says his various forms of contemporary art speak to American Indians by addressing deeply rooted issues like socio-economic conditions, historical misrepresentations and cultural identity—though the art is meant to provide insight for non-native audiences as well.
"The places that I exhibit aren't necessarily places that a native family would go to on a Friday night. Like, 'Load up the station wagon, and let's go see a performance artist at a contemporary space downtown'—see, that doesn't happen a lot," Luna explains. "But, in part, my work is to break down those barriers."
One of Luna's most well-known exhibits, "The Artifact Piece" which took place in 1987, broke down barriers by using a unique approach to address the fact that many Western museums portray Native Americans as relics from the past, while Native Americans are still living and breathing—a common theme in his work.
Luna did this by literally putting himself, a Luiseño Indian, on display at a San Diego museum, laying atop a bed of sand in a exhibition case and wearing nothing but a loincloth. Museum visitors walked by, only to realize that he was not only alive, but watching them from within the glass case.
This piece in particular "really speaks to what a lot of his work is about," says Reuben Roqueñi, the Tucson Pima Arts Council's grants program manager and an event organizer. "It's really this juxtaposition of traditional values and concept against a modern backdrop, and how those values mix with each other."
Luna says the exhibit, like the majority of his work, also addresses a theme broader than what it means to be a native; it explores what it means to be human. This recurring theme, he explains, provides insight and commentary to a broader audience than just the Native American community.
Oftentimes, Luna explains, non-native audience members "get a sense they've been 'let in' to the culture" because of the insight they've gained, but the topics he's trying to address involve "a lot of misconceptions about culture and identity," and are by no means limited to strictly native problems.
Luna's educational and entertaining performative lecture is one of several events that will take place this Friday and Saturday as part of the Tucson Pima Arts Council's "Native Creative" program, which was co-created with First People's Fund, an organization that supports the advancement of American Indian arts through grants and fellowships.
The program was designed to offer the public free arts performances and panel discussions, as well as to provide networking opportunities and workshops for local native artists, Roqueñi says.
"This is the first time that we've done something that focuses on Native American art, but this particular weekend of events is part of an ongoing effort by the Arts Council to offer professional-development opportunities for artists," Roqueñi says.
Other "Native Creative" performances include poetry readings from New Mexico-born author Leslie Marmon Silko and Arizona native Sherwin Bitsui. There will also be panel discussions featuring mixed-media artist Kade L. Twist and painter/sculptor Steven Yazzie.
Silko, Bitsui and Luna will participate in panel discussions as well—and remember, while Luna may don bikini briefs and shiny-lens sunglasses, his appearance is intended as more than entertainment.
"People have come to see me perform, but this is a lecture. It has performative aspects to it—it's multimedia; I show video; I read; I do antics, I'm in costume. I mean it's not just a lecture, but it's not a performance," he says.