Skip to next element

'California Stars' on view at Wheelwright Museum in Santa Fe

By Medicine Man Gallery on

Click to read more Essential West


James Luna (Luiseño, Puyukitchum, Ipai, and Mexican; 1950–2018) used his body in performances, installations, and photographs to question the fetishization, museological display, and commodification of Native Americans. Luna’s Take a Picture with a Real Indian, first presented at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1991, was his most interactive work.

Individuals originally posed with Luna himself or with three life-size cutouts of the artist, two wearing varieties of traditional Native dress and the third in chinos and a polo shirt. Luna reprised the performance artwork in 2001 in Salina, Kansas, and in 2010 on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, formerly Columbus Day, outside Washington, D.C.’s Union Station.

The public again has the chance to “take a picture with a real Indian” now through January 14, 2024, as the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe displays the artwork as part of its exhibition “California Stars: Huivaniūs Pütsiv.”

“In Luna’s jarring performance Take a Picture with a Real Indian he stood at the center of the exhibit, a tourist attraction offering onlookers the opportunity to pose with him for a photograph,” Wheelwright Chief Curator Andrea Hanley (Diné) said. “The performance and audience reactions were a testament to the enduring power of colonial frames of reference.”

Ryan Flahive, who curates the Luna archive states, “Luna described the performance as one of mutual humiliation. As he stood stoically, tourists cracked jokes, thanked him for the souvenir photos, or brought up family stories about possible connections to various tribes.”

The video and cutouts from the performance appear in “California Stars” offering guests the ability to pose with the cutouts.

In keeping with the Luna Estate’s wishes, the “standees” will represent the artist posthumously.

Luna found he attracted more participants while in Native dress than in street clothes, demonstrating the popularity of stereotypical Native American identity and its construct as a tourist attraction.

First Californian artists

“California Stars: Huivaniūs Pütsiv” highlights landmark First Californian artists whose work across varied media combines to speak about personal experiences, mythology and traditions, and to questions of resilience, identity, and social justice. Huivaniūs Pütsiv loosely translates from Chemehuevi as “stars with us or around us.”

“California today is the location of diverse Tribal communities, and the cumulative impact of extractive colonialism continues to have negative impacts, including historical events such as Westward expansion, federal boarding schools, and the Gold Rush,” Hanley said. “Nevertheless, successive generations of artists, ever-present in constellation, guide us towards a deeper understanding of the complexity of these issues. They invite us to witness and experience transcendence.”

With iconic works from the Wheelwright’s permanent collection and important loans and pieces not previously seen beyond the artists’ studios, “California Stars” gives insight into the work of artists who have influenced the Native American contemporary art field for more than six decades.

“They speak to the complexity of everyday life for Native Americans who are frequently forced to negotiate misrepresentation and encroachment on land, culture, and values,” Hanley said.

On view is a diversity of media ranging from jewelry and fashion, to sculpture and painting, and, of course, video, as in the case of Take a Picture with a Real Indian.

The exhibition features the work of well-known figures in contemporary Native American art including Jean LaMarr (Pit River/Paiute, b. 1945), Jamie Okuma (Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock, b. 1977), Rick Bartow (Mad River band of the Wiyot Tribe, 1946 – 2016) and Harry Fonseca (Nisenan/Maidu/Native Hawaiian/Portuguese, 1946–2006). Also included are Fritz Scholder (Luiseño, 1937 – 2005) and Cara Romero (Chemehuevi Indian Tribe, b. 1977), arguably the most prominent first generation contemporary Native American artist and the most prominent Native artist working today.

Romero’s NDN Summer (2023) will be among pieces on view in the show never before publicly exhibited.

NDN Summer references California’s cultural histories as a figurative landscape. Gold, a driving force of colonialism, is a metaphorical and physical connection to the history of California and its Tribes,” Hanley explains. “This work is the outcome of a collaboration between Romero, Leah Mata-Fragua (Yak tityu tityu yak tiłhini), who created the regalia, and model Naomi White Horse (Yak titʸu titʸu yak tiłhini, Northern Chumash, and the Sicangu Lakota communities). Evoking Indigenous female identity and the interdependence of land and body, Romero asks the viewer to consider who occupies California and whose imprint remains on the land.”

Wherever their careers may take them, these artists remain tied to California, the land, not its arbitrary political boundaries.

For a 2020 exhibition at the Tucson Museum of Art entitled “The Western Sublime: Majestic Landscapes of the American West,” Romero said: “local California tribes remain undivided from the cultural landscape, the ecosystem, and health of it. One fundamental difference to Indigenous worldview is that we do not see ourselves as socially separate from our ancestral regions. Instead, we feel and believe that our DNA emerges from these landscapes and so we are ontologically tied to the landscape. It is our identity, causes of our being, and we are bound and committed to each other. We are inseparable from the landscape and give the landscape maximum human value.”

Romero opened her own photography gallery last year, also in Santa Fe, which is open by appointment.


Cara Romero (Chemehuevi) NDN Summer, 2022. 55” X 40”. ©️Cara Romero 2023. Archival pigment print. Courtesy of artist

Cara Romero (Chemehuevi) NDN Summer, 2022. 55” X 40”. ©️Cara Romero 2023. Archival pigment print. Courtesy of artist


Additional Public Programming for “California Stars”

Virtually and in person, members of the public are invited by the Wheelwright Museum to participate in special event programming related to the exhibition.

California Conversations at the Wheelwright: April 8, 2023

(Wheelwright Museum & Zoom)

Cara Romero and L. Frank Manriquez (Tongva/Ajachmem) interview each other on their work and their identity as First California women.

Reflections on: The James Luna Archive - Crazy Days at the Lazy H: May 27, 2023

(Wheelwright Museum & Zoom)

Tatiana Lomahaftewa-Singer (Hopi/Choctaw) (MoCNA Curator of Collections) and Flahive (IAIA Archivist) discuss collecting the archive of Luna’s performance and installation at his home on the La Jolla Indian Reservation in California.

Reflections on: Rick Bartow with Charles Froelick: June 22, 2023


Charles Froelick, owner of Froelick Gallery in Portland, will discuss his unique relationship with artist Rick Bartow whom his gallery has represented since 1995.


Judith Lowry (HammawiBand Pit River-Mountain Maidu-Washoe-Scottish-Irish-Australian), Dao Lulelek, 2012. Acrylic on canvas. Loan from the artist

Judith Lowry (HammawiBand Pit River-Mountain Maidu-Washoe-Scottish-Irish-Australian), Dao Lulelek, 2012. Acrylic on canvas. Loan from the artist


previous article

Ben Aleck sharing his Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe heritage at Nevada Museum of Art