In 1987, the artist James Luna lay prone and motionless in a display case at the San Diego Museum of Man for hours at a time, dressed only in a loincloth. Luna, who was Puyukitchum, Ipai, and Mexican, used absurdist humor in his work as a blunt instrument; if institutions like the Museum of Man insisted on portraying Indigenous culture as dusty and lifeless, he would indulge them with some contemporary reality. Nearby, not far from the museum’s standard vitrines full of historical Indigenous objects like clothing and pottery, Luna had included some of his own – his Motown record collection, for example, and his divorce papers. Luna, who died in 2018, called the performance “The Artifact Piece,” and it quickly became an icon of Indigenous contemporary art – a good-humored statement that Native American culture was alive and well, despite the “culture-under-glass” ethos at most museums that cast it as a relic.
Luna’s work is featured in “Marking Resilience,” an exhibition of Indigenous prints at the Museum of Fine Arts. The show broadly engages contemporary Native American art’s agenda to portray a culture both ancient and living, and the timing couldn’t be better. Last month, new federal regulations prompted museums all over the country to remove objects from their historical Native American displays unless they’d received consent from the Indigenous nations they relate to. At the MFA, eight objects are being taken off view from the historical Native American gallery right next door to “Marking Resilience” while the museum confirms permission with the nations involved.
Consent, it hardly needs be said, hasn’t factored significantly in the display of Indigenous culture in American museums over centuries. In “Marking Resilience,” Luna takes that notion of cultural appropriation to an absurdist extreme. Eight prints from his 2011 “Sumo Jazz” series form a grid of irreverently pointed mischief. In them, Luna positioned a photo of himself between two Sumo wrestlers in an archival photograph, and then made each print unique with bright, gestural abstract patterning.
Luna, clutching feathers and swathed in fabric from the waist down, glares theatrically, an accidental tourist in someone else’s culture. By inserting himself where he doesn’t belong, Luna was saying something, I think, about taking without asking – something Indigenous people have known about all too well for generations. The work is inviting, and then uncomfortable; if its cavalier treatment of stereotype makes you leery, that’s the point.
Organized by the MFA’s curator of Indigenous Art, Marina Tyquiengco, with co-curators Edward Saywell and Duane Slick, “Marking Resilience” is notable for a couple of reasons. It’s the first exhbition that Tyquiengco, who is CHamoru, has curated since her appointment in 2021. Also noteworthy: the MFA acquired almost all the work in the show, which occupies one small gallery, in the last few years. However small scale, the show signals a new commitment by a museum whose engagement with Native American culture has historically been spotty.
In 2018, the MFA exhibition “Collecting Stories: Native American Art” seemed to indicate a reset as the museum aired out its various shortcomings and missteps in the field over generations. Tyquiengco’s 2021 hiring gave it tangible form, and changes through the museum’s displays are an outward signal to viewers of a slowly shifting priority. Native American pieces now routinely appear alongside art of all eras, whether colonial, Modern, or contemporary. Slowly, parallel histories have begun to converge here, telling a richer, more complex story of the nation’s culture.
But “Marking Resilience” has the distinction of being a stand-alone, able to create its own world. Rich gray and crimson walls in low light make a cocoon-like environment, sombre and still, a refuge. Prints have a particular history with Indigenous culture of the post-colonial period, and I was glad to see two pieces by Inuit artists from Nunavut, Canada.
Drawing and printmaking were not part of Inuit culture until government-funded economic development initiatives in the 1950s helped establish studios in Nunavut, and a market for tourist-friendly work in major cities. Now, Kingaiit Studios and Dorset Fine Arts have helped foster the careers of contemporary Inuit art stars like Shuvinai Ashoona, whose drawings have appeared at the Venice Biennale. Ashoona is part of a generation of Inuit artists making frank depictions of northern life and transcending the original intrusion on their culture.
The MFA’s prints – one, by Akesuk Tudlik, modern and abstract-looking, is actually a butchering diagram for a seal; the other, by Niviaksiak, an icy-blue silhouette of a summer tent with the stark outlines of a parent and child within – are both from 1959, the very beginnings of that northern art scene. I would have liked to see their contemporary progeny here, too. Maybe next time.
But some works here are among their relations: Jeffrey Gibson, who is Choctaw-Cherokee and the US representative at the upcoming Venice Biennale, offers “Say a Prayer,” 2021. A geometric pattern holds fast amid an inky wash of dark, fiery color, the piece quivers with a specific anxiety. Gibson, who is both Indigenous and queer, made it in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, an explosive moment of violent intolerance once again dominating American life.
Nearby, Duane Slick’s “Crafting a Consequential Narrative,” 2020, also a pandemic response, is a hauntingly fractured image of roiling chaos; sinewy, coal-gray gnarls twist into themselves in the shadowy background, while a coyote’s skull floats on a block of crimson red. With the world tumbling down around him, Slick wrestled with a fact that Native Americans know well: history is shaped and owned by those with the power to record it. Now, as ever, culture — its embrace, its making, and its forward motion — is how Indigenous people endure.
MARKING RESILIENCE: INDIGENOUS NORTH AMERICAN PRINTS
Through March 17. Museum of Fine Arts, 425 Huntington Ave. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org.