James Luna: “I was born and grew up in a TV, not a teepee”
Since James Luna’s Artifact Piece, indigenous artists from many disciplines and nations have mobilized to disrupt the power dynamics that govern museological and scholarly representation. It was no surprise then that in addition to Luna, the “Curated Conversations” panel on June 14 at the Anchorage Museum included Emily Johnson, Allison Warden, Larry McNeil and Da-Ka-Xeen Mehner, all of whom engage different yet related strategies for activating space, body and image.
Artifact Piece set the bar high for interventions in museums. In 1987, Luna installed himself in a display case at the San Diego Museum of Man, as the artist said on the June 14, 2015 panel at the Anchorage Museum, “in response to our representation as artifacts” in institutional spaces where indigenous peoples have so often been represented without a present, frozen into a past history. Building on the ongoing legacy of this work, Luna called for an inversion of the notion of representation by turning attention to the histories being written in the present and the ones not heard within the institution’s walls.
From the generation that followed Artifact Piece, Da-Ka-Xeen Mehner discussed the limits and absences in a static notion of “tradition” that comes from the romantic expectations placed on indigenous peoples. When asked how his core medium of photography fits into questions of tradition, Mehner replied, “The work that I am doing is part of a tradition, it is a contribution to my culture.” While “tradition” acknowledges pasts, it is also, confidently, now.
All of the artists responded to the dichotomous way of speaking about “tradition” and “contemporary,” but Emily Johnson most succinctly discussed processes of transformation and movement that disrupt such a framework. For Johnson, the body in motion is just a part of the world in motion. She immediately drew the audience’s attention to the movement and change that surround us: “Watching wind move through trees, or watching traffic … that to me is watching dance.” In turn, she characterized her own work not as “representing” her life, but “work that comes through my life.” With dance as a framework for constant transformation that refuses to stabilize, intervention immediately opens up for exchange, conversation and partnership.
Such a holistic engagement with place and a desire for connection characterize Allison Warden’s work as well as her participation in the panel. “I’m making everyone Iñupiaq!” the artist declared, cultivating inclusivity and hospitality, while also setting the stage for transformations that can create new exchanges between the past and the future. This need for connection is one of the “soft spots” Warden seeks out, points of vulnerability that need to be engaged.
The creativity needed to activate those hidden vulnerabilities is likewise needed within the walls of the institution and the forms of representation that have preceded it, as Larry McNeil pointed out. In one of his most recent projects McNeil turns his attention to a photograph presented with the air of cultural decline by Edward Curtis titled Vanishing Race. McNeil reappropriated this icon and replaced the lost context by titling it First Light, Winter Solstice. As the artist discussed, this returns the context to one of “rejuvenation and renewed life.” These outstanding artists brought the museum into a new perspective. Their conversations modeled the collaboration that is replacing the old framework, and making the museum into a space of creation and transformation. Not a bad start for a year’s worth of “Curated Conversations,” the beginning of a larger conversation that won’t stop anytime soon.