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Art Papers - September/October 2001

Healing with Humor
New American Perspectives from James Luna and Dan Kwong

By Jose Torres Tama

To entertain is to seduce, and to successfully seduce, trust has to be forged. What better way to create trust than through humor? Stand-up comics know this well, and they can get away with saying almost anything if they are funny because comedy disarms us. As such, the performance artist who strategically uses humor can more easily win over audiences and lure them into listening to more challenging material. Furthermore, laughter can help us confront painful truths that create guilt, and what greater scarlet letter on the American chest is there than the near genocide of the vanquished indigenous people whose voices are almost unheard of as a minority within minorities? Only the white guilt produced by a legacy of slavery can compare, but the "Indian" is conveniently tucked away in reservations and remembered nostalgically in the "Dances with Wolves" depictions that fill the Anglo imagination.

Enter James Luna, an installation and performance artist living on the La Jolla Reservation in North San Diego County, whose work deromanticizes the idealization of the "Indian" and challenges the dominant culture with the realities of a colonized people. Born a "Half and half," part Mexican and part Luiseno Indian, Luna's work exposes the ill conditions plaguing his people in modern America -- alcoholism, diabetes, unemployment, and inadequate education and housing.

In his American Indian Study performance piece, humor is the main ingredient for chipping away at the idyllic archetypes of the Indian as spiritual healer and noble warrior. Dressed as a sort of native shaman crowned with a feathered headpice, Luna opens with a series of pseudo rituals that include the offering of an air-freshener can, which he sprays as seriously as a medicine man in a cleansing ceremony. At one point, he addresses the audience about selling some sacred souvenirs after the show -- such as a "wet dream catcher," an alternative to those other ubiquitous dream catchers that trendy spiritual seekers are buying up. Completely fabricated and inauthentic, his product is made up of a broken tennis racket, adorned with native colored condoms and a rabbit's foot -- just in case you do get lucky. This spoof is double-edged as Luna satirizes the commercialization of native culture while also implicating the white tourist in the sham as a gullible consumer. Who is the victim: the fake Indian chieftain selling canned spirituality or the "wannabe Indian" Anglo seeking divine refuge in a heritage that has been corrupted by its contact with the ruling class?

In Shameman, more double meanings abound as the title suggests that Luna is shamelessly selling the remains of his culture. Perhaps, ashamed of being Indian, he is stripping himself bare before his bachelors (oppressors) for a buck or two. But as the clown/trickster who turns the tables on us with humorous invention, he contests the notion that only the virtuous aspects of being Indian should be cherished. Thus, he reveals the discrimination inherent in myth worship by a culture that turns its back on the very real difficulties of native Americans living on federal reservations -- not just in the Hollywood imagination. Simultaneously, he forces his own people to address the problems brought on by marginalization such as alcohol addiction -- something the artist has had to contend with also.

In a similar vein, performance artist and writer Dan Kwong confronts the stereotypes and myths created by mainstream culture about Asian males. His Smash Hits and Pop Flies, a greatest hits collection of excerpts from previous solo shows, opens with a hilariously absurd segment titled "Birth Interview" whereby baby Dan gives a delivery room press conference to answer an array of questions concerning his future as a Chinese/Japanese male in American culture. With his head piercing above a black sheet, Kwong skillfully maneuvers the puppet body of his baby self while he tries to make sense of his complex identity issues. Responding to questions about his masculinity and a common myth that men from his culture are not well-endowed, he continuously makes the kind of erratic baby gestures expected of new-borns, drooling and demonstrating the discomfort that comes with a wet diaper.

In a more serious passage called "Song for Grandpa," his storytelling prowess is exhibited as we learn that his grandfather, Kwong Kwon Hing, was literally stoned by white kids as a young Chinese boy growing up in Los Angeles. The grandfather appears to have devolved into a walking stereotype of the "Chinaman," feeble and weak, and the young Dan tries to find something of the heroic in this old man, who is his only living link to the past and other Kwong men. But he only sees a kooky old man who sings out the names from the American phone book as if singing a Chinese folk song, much to the ridicule of Dan and his sisters. Remembering this story, Kwong reveals the self-hatred that he had to overcome as he desperately tried not to be another "wimpy chink," distancing himself from other Asian men who "remotely resemble the stereotypes." Only years later does he develop a profound understanding for his grandpa's inner strength and the simple delight that the old man had for the sound of his own voice, singing his unique song in the face of laughter.

Like Luna, Kwong is product of two minority cultures coming together in the United States, as his mother is Japanese and his father is Chinese. Both artists have had to strike a balance between their rich ethnic halves and their American selves to rightfully proclaim a place for their experiences in this cultural mosaic. They do so with humanity and humor in their art, reminding us that there are multiple voices to hear from in the struggle for equality and representation.

 

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