Acting Out Performances by James Luna, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, and Rebecca Belmore
IN a one-off show on Friday, Dec. 4, three of the most daring North American performance artists to emerge over the past 25 years take the stage at the Lensic Performing Arts Center. The show is the capstone of a two-day series of workshops and lectures called Acting Out: A Symposium on Indigenous Performance Art. The three selected artists are known for asking provocative questions about how Native and Chicano lives are represented in the dominant culture while using heavy dollops of satire, pop culture, and absurdism to keep their work accessible to audiences outside the art world. The performers are Rebecca Belmore, James Luna, Guillermo Gómez-Peña. Belmore is an Anishinaabe-Canadian whose work blends sculpture, video, and performance to examine unresolved historical traumas among Canadian First Nations peoples. Luna, a California Luiseño tribe member, creates performances that force art consumers and museumgoers to look at how they idealize ancient Native cultures while failing to realize the plight of actual living Native Americans. Experimental Chicano writer and monologuist Gómez-Peña brings a flashy visual panache and a multilingual atmosphere to his performance art pieces, whose antics borrow from drag theatrics and Banksy-style political gags.
“I’ve always believed performance art is the most perfect medium for Indian subject matter because there are no boundaries,” said Luna in an interview with Pasatiempo. “You can dance, sing, scream, howl at the moon, get naked, pray and express gratitude. Our culture in general comes from an oral tradition.” Luna is famed for his performances, which engage museum crowds in ways that are both stealthy and startling. In his 1986 performance, Artifact Piece, he notoriously installed himself at a the San Diego Museum of Man, where he lay with eyes closed on a bed of sand alongside diorama exhibits of the Kumeyaay Indians who once lived in San Diego County. Dressed in just a leather loincloth, Luna was surrounded by labels that identified his scars from drinking and fighting, alongside a collection of his books, shoes, and rock albums, as well as contemporary ritual items from the La Jolla reservation where Luna still lives. His performance forced audiences to reckon with Indians as contemporary citizens.
At the symposium, Luna said he will be premiering a new piece called Native Adventures, which will combine an indigenous take on road trips with what he called a “turista, first-impression look at arriving in Santa Fe.” Luna has been awarded the Eiteljorg Museum Fellowship for Native American Fine Art
and was sponsored by the National Museum of the American Indian to participate in the 2005 Venice Biennale.
Throughout his career, Luna has been a frequent collaborator with Gómez-Peña, who accompanies him on the Lensic bill for the night. Born and raised in Mexico City, Gómez-Peña moved to the U.S. in 1978 as a young adult. During the 1980s, he co-founded the Border Arts Workshop/Taller de Arte Fronterizo, where he pioneered performances that looked at globalization, violence, and technology through the eyes of Latino immigrants. In a groundbreaking early 1990s performance, Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West, Gómez-Peña and fellow artist Coco Fusco toured museums across the country in a giant cage, dressed in an tribal kitsch of grass skirts and Day-Glo wrestling masks, where they were billed as Native Americans recently arrived from a tiny Mexican island. Performed around the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ landing in the Americas, the piece poked jabs at the museum and zoo tradition of displaying actual human families from tribal societies as exhibits.
Much of his current work is produced through his artist collective, La Pocha Nostra (it’s a sort of bilingual wordplay on the Mafia name and pocho/a, a Spanish word for spoiled fruit used by Mexicans to insult Americanized Chicanos). “La Pocha Nostra is mostly exiles, ex-dancers, ex-actors, ex-video artists who are looking for extra freedom,” said Gómez-Peña in an interview with Pasatiempo.
Gómez-Peña has written 10 books, many of which expand his idea of connecting art to active citizenship. “I call it ‘imaginary activism,’ ” he said. “It’s a place where Latinos occupy the center and Anglos are seen as exotic and non-mainstream. It’s a place where there are no passports and no borders. I use multiple languages like English, Spanish, Spanglish, and invented languages as well.” It’s a concept he elaborated on in The New World Border: Prophecies, Poems & Loqueras for the End of the World, a 1997 book that won the author an American Book Award. The artist is also a 1991 MacArthur Fellow and a 2016 recipient of the the Fleishhacker Foundation Eureka Fellowship, which funds visual artists.
At his performance in Santa Fe, Gómez-Peña said that his solo performance will be a stripped-down personal look at aging. “I just turned sixty. The piece is going to be about me facing down my demons and talking about them in a completely uncensored way.”
Belmore rounds out the bill for the night. Based in Winnipeg, the artist is known for her extensive incorporation of sculpture and natural materials into her video and onstage performances. In a 2014 piece commissioned by the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Belmore used local river clay to create thousands of large clay beads to construct a giant foldable blanket spanning a large museum wall. The work builds on previous video pieces she has released that re-enact the distribution of smallpox-infected blankets to First Nations communities during the Canadian colonial era.
Belmore has received several awards and accolades for her work. In 2005, she became the first female indigenous artist to represent Canada in the Venice Biennale. She is the 2013 recipient of the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts issued by the Canadian Council for the Arts.
Local art writer and curator Lucy Lippard leads a post-performance discussion with the artists about their practices as well as their past and current projects. As Gómez-Peña said of his work and fellow performers for the night, “We will be presenting a very different view of what is indigenous art. It draws from some very old and ancient traditions. At the same time, it is extremely experimental and postmodern. It’s the kind of work that defies easy definition.”
Rebecca Belmore: White Thread, 2003, archival inkjet on paper