Internationally renowned performance and installation artist James Luna (Puyukitchum/Ipai/ Mexican American Indian) resides on the La Jolla Indian Reservation in North County San Diego, California. With over 30 years of exhibition and performance experience Luna has given voice to Native American cultural issues, pursued innovative and versatile media within his disciplines, and charted waters for other artists to follow. His powerful works transform gallery spaces into battlefields, where the audience is confronted with the nature of cultural identity, the tensions generated by cultural isolation, and the dangers of cultural misinterpretations, all from an Indigenous perspective. 

Since 1975, he has had over 41 solo exhibitions, participated in 85 group exhibitions and has performed internationally at venues that include the Museum of Modern Art (NYC), Whitney Museum of American Art, New Museum of Art, San Francisco Museum of Art, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Canada, and Museum of Contemporary Native Art, Santa Fe, NM. 

In 2005, he was selected as the first Sponsored Artist of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian presented at the 2005 Venice Biennale’s 51st International Art Exhibition in Venice, Italy.


Performagraphic Woodland Art Centre, Branford, Canada, 2016

We Become Them Memphis State Univ., Memphis, MS   

Rock & Roll Photo Coup Georgia State University, Milledgeville, GA  

Rock & Roll Photo Coup Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, Santa Fe, NM    

All Indian, All the Time Mesa Arts Center, Mesa, AZ 

Emendatio Venice Biennale 05, Venice, Italy

Petroglyphs In Motion De Museum, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, CA 

The Sacred Colors Seagrove Art Gallery, Univ. of Saskatchewan, CAN

The Spirits of Virtue & Evil Await My Accession Univ. of Wyoming, Laramie, WY

The Dream Hat Ritual Santa Monica Museum of Art, Santa Monica, CA

11-Year Retrospective U.C. Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, CA

James Luna: New Works Carl Gorman Gallery, U.C. Davis (1975)


Sovereign Acts Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery, Concordia University, Montreal,  Quebec, Canada

Icon San Diego Mesa College, San Diego, CA (2014)

Close Encounters Plug In, Winnipeg, Canada

Across the Divide IL State Museum, Springfield, IL

The American West Compton Verney, UK

Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA

The Decade Show The New Museum of Art, NY, NY 

Whitney Museum of Art, NY, NY

San Francisco Museum of Art, San Francisco, CA

Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, La Jolla, CA

National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, CAN

Native Am. Art, Office of Governor EG Brown Jr., Capitol Bld., Sacramento, Ca (1975)


Sacred Grounds Live Arts Festival, London, UK  

“Native Stories: The Earth We Stand Upon”

Ishi, the Archival Performance Native Earth Theater, Toronto, Canada

Ishi, the Archival Performance University of British Columbia, Okanogan

James Luna: Indian Stories & Songs Montenergo University, Montenegro Indigenous Realities Conference

Ishi: The Archive PerformanceBoston Art Center, Boston, MA  “” (2014)

“Futuristic Retro Ritual”,  “Wow Festival”, La Jolla Playhouse, La Jolla, CA

“La Nostalgia”, collaboration with Guillermo Gomez Pena

Saskatoon, Regina, SK, Canada

Mesa Art Center, Mesa AZ “Native Stories: Basically Factual”

“Urban Rituals”, Te Pa Pa Museum, Wellington, New Zealand

Compton Verney, UK  “Sun & the Moon Blues”

Nippon Int. Performance Festival, Tokyo, Japan

The Decade Show, New Museum, NYC  “The Artifact Piece”

SITE Santa Fe, Santa Fe, NM, “Petroglyphs in Motion”

Whitney Museum of Art, NY, NY (1993 Biennial)

Institute of American Indian Arts Museum, Santa Fe, NM

Banff Center for the Arts, Banff, CAN

Museum of Man/Sushi Gallery,  San Diego, CA

“The Artifact Piece” (1987)


Extensive list available upon request



James Phelan Fund

California Native

American Special Project Grant


Native Arts & Culture Foundation

 “National Artist Fellowship”


Arts Matters Grant



Honorary PhD in Humanities

Institute of American Indian Arts

Santa Fe, NM


Joan Mitchell Award for Sculpture


Distinguished Artist Award

Eiteljorg Museum

Indianapolis, IN



National Museum of the American Indian “Emendatio”

Venice Biennale

Venice, Italy


Creative Capital Grant


Japan/U.S. Creative Artist Exchange Fellowship



UC Santa Barbara

“Dorantes Lecturer”


U.C. San Diego

“Regents Lecture”


Andrea Frank Foundation Grant



Video Grant

Native American Public Broadcasting


Distinguished Visiting Faculty Award



American Indian Film Festival

San Francisco, CA  

“Best Live Short Performance Award”



The Rockefeller Foundation

New York,NY

“Intercultural Film/Video Grant”


New York Dance & Theatre Workshop

New York, NY

“The Bessie Award”


Western States Arts Federation

 Santa Fe, NM

“Fellowship in Sculpture”



This past Columbus Day, performance artist James Luna stood in front of Washington, D.C.'s Union Station and invited people to take his picture. (Katherine Fogden / NMAI, SI)

Read more:

The Epistrophy of James Luna

By Wanda Nanibush

James Luna — his name should be whispered in reverence by all performance artists everywhere but also should be screamed through the halls of every museum.  James Luna is a Puyukitchum (Luiseño), Ipi (Degueno), and Mexican-American performance and multimedia installation artist living on California’s La Jolla Indian Reservation. He has been at the forefront of performance art and its intersections with and influence on photography and media installation since he first stepped into a museum as a living exhibit in the 1970s. Trained by Dutch conceptual artist, Bas Jan Ader, Luna uses psychology, a keen eye to the contradictions contemporary ‘Indian’ people live under colonialism, the aesthetics of a painter, and a fearlessness in “airing our dirty laundry.”

The diptych Apparitions 2 shows the complexity of Luna’s strategy of juxtaposition in his photographic work. For this series, Luna uses self-portraiture as a contemporary Indigenous man paired with anthropologically situated photographs of potential ancestors. Apparitions 2 has Luna mimicking the photo of William Ralganal Benson, circa 1936 and held at Hearst Museum of Anthropology, University of California. Benson was an expert basketmaker, the evidence of which he displays in his hand. In the anthropological discourse surrounding him he is described as follows:

Benson was fortunate enough to have lived his boyhood years during the last decade in which Eastern Pomo speakers enjoyed a more-or-less traditional lifestyle. By the 1870s, the social and environmental disruptions caused by a growing local Anglo-American population would make traditional life impossible, as the lifeways of local Indians became increasingly marginalized.

Benson, along with his wife, exhibited at the St. Louis Fair as an expert basketmaker in 1904. In the Apparitions series, Luna draws parallels between his practice of performing ‘Indian’ for contemporary art crowds and historical figures who also performed their artistry for crowds at world fairs and museums. In Apparitions 2, the clock he holds gives a clue to his critique. While the archival photos show a fascination with an authentic ‘Indian’ culture from pre-contact times, the depicted artists were actually involved in a process of cultural change. Benson made a living from his work and used white expectations of his identity and culture for his own gain. Luna’s photos and performance works’ use of irony do the same, turning societal desire for authentic pre-contact cultures inward by insisting on contemporaneity. In fact, the clock did not stop and Indigenous cultures continue to change and transform as always. The desire to stop time for Indigenous cultures has always meant a denial of place and presence on both the land and in modern societies for current Indigenous peoples.

Another layer in Luna’s work can be seen clearly in We Become Them, in which he contorts his face into the exact replica of a ‘traditional’ west coast mask. Instead of critiquing the prevalence of desire for west coast art in the white imaginary he reframes the mask in an Indigenous context. As a performance artist, his work is connected to the work of the First Nations who would have used these masks in performance, offering a much longer history to performance art in North America. By using his own body to become the mask Luna draws us into the idea of transformation itself and its potential value in Indigenous cultures. As another kick to the knees of old school anthropology he questions: if the masks are meant to be performed then why are they behind glass? We might also ask ourselves how our cultures have shifted into Luna’s brand of performance and storytelling and how we should value it as equally about social change and community remembrance.

In Half-Indian Half-Mexican Luna challenges our understandings of racial purity and the stereotypic signifiers of culture. While each of his two profile shots are of the same man (Luna), each can be recognized as either Mexican or Indian because of the proliferation of images we recognize as representative of a culture. In this case, the Mexican mustache and the Indian long hair. When you confront both profiles head on you realize the ridiculousness of our standards of recognition and how easy it is to split a person in half by our desire to know who someone is definitively. When people cross borders literally (US/Mexican border) and biologically it challenges us to see the fear that lies at the assertion of all borders and purities. That same fear leads to violence against the bodies that cross those borders. While we might laugh at the absurdity of such a dual face we also realize the reality of imposing the division of those identities.  

While Luna’s photography is a distillation and continuation of his performance practice it also functions in a similar vein. By having his own body confront the viewer, they can no longer deny his existence. The Indigenous body that has been segregated, exterminated, traumatized, disabled, and confined becomes a site of challenge, power, humour, community, and cultural continuity.




Luna performs the Artifact Piece at the Museum of Man, Balboa Park, San Diego, CA


Luna received an honorary PhD in Humanities from the Institute of American Indian Arts, Santa Fe, NM


Luna represents the National Museum of the American Indian, Washington D.C. at the Venice Biennale

 Luna performs “The Artifact Piece” at the Museum of Man, San Diego, CA


Since 2011 to the end of 2016, “Ishi: The Archival Performance” will have been performed at 11 venues in the US & Canada.