Connected \\ April 3, 2019
On creating solidarity: Cannupa Hanska Luger
The first time I saw Cannupa Hanska Luger’s art was in his 2013 solo exhibition, STEREOTYPE: Misconceptions of the Native American at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I can see in my mind’s eye his set of 12 ceramic boomboxes. Many in the set represented American Indian stereotypes and some were his reactions to them. Luger took on issues of cultural appropriation through his star-studded stereos, some of which he dressed in long braids and feather headdresses, stand-ins for pop culture appropriators Gwen Stefani and Drew Barrymore, and the OG stereotyper himself, the turn-of-the-20th century American photographer Edward S. Curtis. Others blasted (as any good “ghetto blaster” does) the hypersexualization of Native women, as well as the romanticization of the “noble savage” and ideas of cultural extinction. This body of work used puns and humor to demonstrate the ridiculousness of such essentialized notions of identity and labels, rooted in a problematic history that extends to the present. As part of the exhibition’s finale, in a powerful performative act, Luger destroyed all but one of these pieces (his self-portrait), crushing the stereotypes he referenced. Broken shards were displayed for a week in front of a faintly outlined silhouette of their former ceramic forms, with the question: “What do you see?”
The Barrymore (left) and The Curtis (right) from STEREOTYPE: Misconceptions of the Native American. Works by Cannupa Hanska Luger, 2013. Courtesy the artist.
The act of turning a one-directional gaze (from viewer-to-object) into an elliptical (viewer-to-object-to-viewer) is a deft strategy Luger has continued to deploy in his artistic practice, which has expanded considerably since this 2013 series. As a multidisciplinary artist working in unexpected materials and conceptual dimensions, Luger leverages his art as a tool of protest for urgent issues in social and environmental justice, particularly those affecting Indigenous communities. Creating a pathway to empathy is the driving force and dismantling dominant, erroneous perceptions of Native art and cultures by building things anew remains a constant. Luger’s more recent social collaboration projects at once enlighten, penetrate and complicate our visual and conceptual spaces.
Cannupa Hanska Luger at Oceti Sakowin camp, Standing Rock, North Dakota, November 2016. Photo: Tomas Karmelo, Indigenous Rising Media, courtesy the artist.
Luger (born 1979, Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Lakota, Austrian, and Norwegian) recently won the inaugural Burke Prize at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in New York, a prestigious cash award given to an emergent voice who is pushing the field forward in dynamic ways, and providing a glimpse into the expansive future of contemporary craft. MAD displayed two of his projects which underscore his focus on craft as community endeavor, and at the same time communicate pressing issues in 21st century indigeneity. On view earlier this year was Luger’s Mirror Shield Project, 2016; two similar mirror shields and a companion video from this project are also included in PEM’s current traveling exhibition Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment.
His Mirror Shield Project came into being during the 2016 demonstrations at Standing Rock, North Dakota against the Dakota Access Pipeline construction, which posed major threats to the region’s clean water and to ancient burial grounds. Over several months, thousands of water protectors rallied against the pipeline at Oceti Sakowin camp on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Luger, who now lives in New Mexico, grew up between the Standing Rock Reservation and Arizona. Standing Rock is home, his true north where his relations live. It has also been the site for several of his works and performances.
In conjunction with Luger’s artworks on view in Nature’s Nation, is an upcoming public program “Ghosting of America’s Past” at PEM on April 27. I spoke with Luger March 5 about his Mirror Shield Project, his future endeavors and the relationship between artists, objects and museums.
View of installation in Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment at the Peabody Essex Museum. Mirror shields, from Mirror Shield Project, 2016. Concept by Cannupa Hanska Luger. Made by anonymous community members. Masonite, Mylar adhesive paper, and rope. Photo courtesy author.
On view with River (The Water Serpent), 2016. Drone video. Water serpent performance organization and drone operation by Rory Wakemup; Film editing by Dylan McLaughlin; Field recording and sound mastering by Ginger Dunnill. Courtesy of Cannupa Hanska Luger.
KK: Let’s start with Mirror Shield Project. Was the concept for the project forming over time? Was it born in a specific moment?
CHL: The Mirror Shield Project came out of necessity. The inspiration for it was derived initially from the civil unrest and the use of police force to militarize and guard spaces in the Ukraine during their 2014 uprising. What I had seen on the internet was women bringing mirrors out to the frontlines so police in riot gear would see themselves.
Something happens when you’re facing a line of riot police where it’s really difficult to see their humanity, because they’re a repeated pattern. You get into these defensive spaces. What I recognize about these mirrors in the Ukraine was that it happened in urban spaces. There was a third party bearing witness to this violence: the public. Up in Standing Rock, we were out on the Plains so it was really just us and them. There was no third party bearing witness to that and the violence that was being inflicted on the people was pretty brutal. If someone got hit with a rubber bullet, the people holding mirror shields could be injured by glass and so I was trying to think of a way to get the mirrored effect without actually injuring the people carrying them, so I developed the concept to use reflective mylar.
The mirrored shield is not a new concept. Perseus used the mirrored shield to defeat Medusa. So I was thinking about it in a much broader stroke of Monster Slayer. At its core, I always try to remind people, it wasn’t a protest. The people were gathering there weren’t protesting the oil or the pipeline. They were for protecting our first mother, our natural resource, our first medicine, the water. That is something that is egalitarian. Everyone needs water and should have access to water. That is why we called ourselves the Water Protectors rather than protesters (the media wanted to say ‘protesters’). I liked the idea of bringing these mirrored shields to the front line to create a barrier that actually unites rather than separates and remind the riot police that we’re trying to protect water for them and their children as well. So this was a way conceptually to put them on our front line as well and reflect that conversation back.
It ramped up in October when they were spraying people with water hoses and I thought, this needs to happen immediately. Out of that necessity came a quick run to whatever major hardware box stores everyone in the country would have access to. I thought, what can I make here, literally in the parking lot...and that’s where the concept of the design came out of. It’s a really simple and inexpensive way to create solidarity, using the internet as a driver for that. Facebook and Facebook Live, and liking and sharing as a form of protest was really ramped up in that moment as things were happening.
I was born about 30 miles south of where that pipeline went across. I was thinking about the response of the community that I have here in New Mexico because by then I had driven many, many loads of resources gathered in New Mexico to Standing Rock, at the camps Oceti Sakowin. The question devolved into, “What can I do -- I’m just one person.” Well, this is what one person can do. And it would embed your muscle memory in your activism rather than just liking and sharing on social media. It allows the person to physically make something and be more vested in the whole engagement. That’s the core of where the design came from.
KK: There is a video that accompanies the two mirror shields in the installation in Nature’s Nation. It is drone footage taken by Rory Wakemup and shows the Water Protectors carrying the shields in a mesmerizing serpentine performance. How and when did the drone footage performance come about? Was it always conceived of as part of the project?
CHL: I produced a video on how to make mirrored shields filmed by Razelle Benally and the mirrored shields were coming into the mailing address I had put on the video in Standing Rock. Simultaneously I was at a residency at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe and basically used my whole residency to produce these shields and drive them up to Standing Rock.
Still image from Mirror Shield DIY Instruction Video - “How to Build Mirror Shields for Standing Rock Water Protectors” filmed by Razelle Benally (Oglala Lakota/Diné) from https://vimeo.com/191394747
At the camp, things were getting pretty hectic. It was Thanksgiving. Rory Wakemup, an artist friend from Minneapolis, and I were talking about doing some sort of performance with the shields, utilizing the privilege of artist as subterfuge. We wanted to design an action that was performed not specifically for a drone but for the Morton County police airplanes and helicopters that were flying over the camp on a 24-hour basis. Rory came up with this idea of creating a Water Serpent form using the shields. As we worked on development of that action, Rory filmed an almost preemptive tutorial drone video of the bodies that were there at Standing Rock wanting to do something. All of the footage that you see in that video is from a practice run for the actual performance. The action itself took place for the police surveillance, and was not documented via drone.