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Cannupa Hanska Luger turns the tables on the art world

Several weeks later, on a bright, frosty January afternoon, I met the artist at his home in the snowy hills above Santa Fe. Luger was wearing blue jeans, a hoodie, and a beanie. As he played with his dogs outside, we talked about various ceramic pieces he was working on: a head with a sword stuck in its mouth; an oversized bison skull; a stoic aboriginal face mask. “It’s not art; they are what is left of the art,” he told me. Luger’s art is process oriented, not object oriented, and what drives him is not what he does but the thrill of doing it. “All of these things are just by-products of something incredibly special. The ceramic chips and the paint are fading, but the creation is perfect.

Luger calls clay a “generous” material. Recently, he created 72 ceramic balls, each cast from one of many molds, then fired in his kiln and painted in designs that reimagined them as purely aesthetic objects. One design featured cobalt-colored flowers that evoked Russian teacups, while others were inspired by Crayola crayons and military camouflage patterns. Another received a gold leaf and porcelain treatment. The installation, titled “Rounds”, grew out of Luger’s ongoing fascination with symbols of colonial violence and his interest in imagining them as aesthetic trophies – like an indigenous anthropologist of white settler culture, he dissociates the object of its function and finds a strange beauty.

When Luger was 4 years old, his parents divorced and the reservation eventually became a place he only visited. He and his four siblings went to live with their mother, the artist Kathy Whitman-Elk Female, who moved with them to the Black Hills for a while before settling in Santa Fe to earn a better living. (“There is no economy for Native art in North Dakota,” Luger said.) It was a fleeting childhood, with stints in New Mexico and Arizona, but always tied to the market Indian from Santa Fe, where her mother sold her beads, paintings and sculptures at a stall every August.

Santa Fe has been the center of the Native art world since September 4, 1922, when New Mexico Museum Director Edgar Lee Hewett opened what was then called the Southwest Indian Fair and the exhibition of industrial arts and crafts. In a welcoming speech, Hewett, a white archaeologist and anthropologist from Illinois, professed his hopes that the market would help preserve what he sometimes called the “ancestral purity” of Indigenous arts and crafts. Calling himself the arbiter of native authenticity, Hewett encouraged the Pueblo Indians to abandon any pottery traditions stemming from contact with the Spaniards – believing that they had tainted the “racial purity” of the art – while not not recognizing its own corrupting influence. One of the attractions of the market’s first year was a black-on-black style of pottery developed by residents of the Pueblo de San Ildefonso solely for sale to white shoppers; Hewitt also offered free admission to Indians who came dressed in traditional clothing.

A century later, Santa Fe’s more than 200 art galleries, which tend to specialize in Native art, primarily sell what Luger calls “Santa Fe romanticism,” an aesthetic descendant of the ideal from Hewett: silver and turquoise jewelry, Zuni dolls, dusty Georgia O’. Keeffe Sunsets. Hewett’s creation evolved into the Santa Fe Indian Market, where, over a long weekend each summer, 1,000 artists representing 160 different tribes, nations and villages display and sell their work to more than 100,000 visitors.

Raising Luger around the market, Elk Woman correctly sensed that her son resented his trappings. Succeeding there meant endless haggling, networking, and the kind of salesmanship that bordered on theatrics. When white clients made insulting offers on Elk Woman’s work, told off-the-wall jokes, or made unreasonable demands on her time, she had no choice but to cheerfully accommodate them. She was a single mother with five dependent children and with no other source of income than her art, she depended on the Indian market. Playing this game well could be suffocating, though, and she’s sure her son has seen it. “I think it left a bad taste in her mouth,” she told me. Luger said watching his mother from the periphery of this economy also sharpened his instincts to recognize who was looking to support Indigenous artists and who was looking to rob them.

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