Papers - September/October 2001
New American Perspectives from James Luna and Dan Kwong
Jose Torres Tama
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.