Performed April 3-5, 2008, at the George Gustav Heye Center, Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, New York, NY
The original Artifact Piece was performed in 1987 at the San Diego Museum of Man. The work had been called “groundbreaking,” “elegant,” “powerful,” and “harsh,” and its artist, James Luna, had been called “the most dangerous Indian alive.”
Like its model, Erica Lord’s Artifact Piece Revisited attempts to recall a suppressed memory of Native-as-Spectacle in American institutions of display. Yet Revisited is more than a reiteration of Luna’s initial critique of museums as architects of Native identity. In personalizing Luna’s work, Lord calls into question ideal femininity as well as accepted notions of “Nativeness.” Furthermore, with the introduction of text referring to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act she confronts the ethics of museum collecting practices and brings to light a part of institutional history that curators and trustees would prefer to keep in the shadows.
Positioned at either end of her sandy display case bed are two poster-size panels densely packed with typeset text and maps. Near her head stands one panel comprised of text that summarizes and historicizes the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). For decades, Natives waged a war with the US Government demanding the recognition of their right to possess their cultural property. NAGPRA was the result of their dogged persistence. The law did not exist in 1987 when Luna donned his loincloth; it only came into being in 1990 and did not see real implementation for several years. Lord’s inclusion of the law is one of her many innovations that allows Artifact Piece to remain current and relevant. Yet the NAGPRA Panel not only updates Artifact Piece to reflect changes in US Policy towards Native rights and museum collections. It also questions the notion of the museum as steward of Native culture, and even steward of Native remains.
In replacing Luna’s masculine body with Erica Lord’s feminine figure, Revisited ups the anti. The history of women as objects of the male gaze automatically enters the work with this change of body. But there is an additional history of Native American women as fetishized objects of male desire that Lord invokes in her performance. The market for images of Native Americans created a secondary market for “prairie pinups” – photographs of nude Indian women “in the familiar poses of a Playboy centerfold.”
Staged within the walls of an institution that hopes to offer an alternative American history, Artifact Piece Revisited is a work that forcibly shakes its audience out of a socially-induced amnesia while proposing the possibility of an alternative contemporary Native American. It does not allow us to remain satisfied with NAGPRA, a few repatriations, and the creation of the NMAI. It keeps the Native demand for recognition as a sovereign, vital, and active community on the table. It forces us to take note and ask, where should we go from here?
For anyone interested in a lengthier discussion of Luna’s original “artifact piece,” Lord’s re-envisioning, or Lord’s work more broadly, shoot me an email and I’ll shoot you a 20-page paper or 2.