Cannupa Hanska Luger: Changing the face of Native Arts

Sarah Manriquez / Sun Star

UAF is hosting Cannupa Hanska Luger as an artist in residence through an eight-week exchange program with the Rasmuson Foundation. Luger is visiting from Santa Fe, NM and is almost finished with his residency here at UAF. Lugar has been a guest speaker in many art classes on campus during his stay and has been inspiring compelling conversations about the definition of Native Arts and what it means to be an artist and succeed.

Luger was born in North Dakota on the Standing Rock Reservation. His mother, a native artist, relocated his family to the southwest, where there is a much stronger market for Native

Lugar uses a flat piece of wood to carefully puncture a slit in the mouthpiece of his bird ocarina to make a functioning mouthpiece in the graduate art studio at UAF. - Sarah Manriquez/Sunstar

Lugar uses a flat piece of wood to carefully puncture a slit in the mouthpiece of his bird ocarina to make a functioning mouthpiece in the graduate art studio at UAF. – Sarah Manriquez/Sunstar

American art.

“I always think of myself as the skin on a bubble,” Luger said.  “it’s the same air on the inside as it is on the outside but there is something that defines it; this really thin line existing between the two and I feel like I grew up existing in that place.”

Despite Luger’s mother being a working artist, she did not pressure him to follow in her footsteps. Luger made the decision to become an artist when he was an adult. He made the realization that art, and making art, made him happy.

Luger was never afraid that making a living as an artist wouldn’t be possible for him. His mother raised five children on art. He was never fooled by what he describes as the illusion of the artist’s lifestyle, the icon of it versus the reality. He never had the dream to get an artist’s loft in New York City and be a starving artist. He knew committing to this as his career choice that it would involve an incredible amount of work and perseverance. He knew the reality of it, which he partially describes as feast and famine.

“My art-making motto is NEVER STOP,” Luger said. “And, I think that’s the trick to succeeding. At every turn they tell you you’re not going to make it and if you don’t stop, all of the other people who are listening to them fall out and then you see who’s left and who remains. It’s almost like a culling.”

The road Luger has chosen has not been an easy one. It was a path he forged through persistent hard work and relentless commitment to his journey. He believes much of it revolves around the idea of sacrifice.

“Its making that decision and going for broke and risking everything in order to do what feels most fulfilling for you,” Luger said.

Lugar burnishes the body of his bird ocarina in the graduate art studio at UAF. - Sarah Manriquez/Sun Star

Luger burnishes the body of his bird ocarina in the graduate art studio at UAF. – Sarah Manriquez/Sun Star

In many of his presentations Luger describes the time we live in now to be an exciting and interesting one for the Native Art industry; a time of change. The collectors of “traditional” native pieces are aging. The collectors Luger is referring to are the people who created a demand for pieces in Luger’s mother’s generation, and people from this era are growing older and literally dying. Their collections are being given away, destroyed, thrown out or donated by their predecessors to museums. For the first time, people are coming to the artist and asking, “what is native art?” and allowing the artists currently in the industry to define it in a new and radical way in comparison to how it has been represented before this.

“The fact of the matter is, anything I do is native art,” Luger said. “That’s the conversation that I like to bring to the table. The external world doesn’t get to decide what it is anymore. Everything I do is drawing from my life experience and my life experience is under this indigenous, native perspective.”

Up until this point in time in the native arts industry has been the result of a proud Native American people making consistent strides forward. It’s their history, the way they responded to it and how it influenced the next generation to take action. Luger discusses this progression through recent history dating back to his grandparent’s generation.

“My grandparents’ generation had this notion if you could pass as anything but Native American, do it,” Luger said. “If you can go move to a city, complete this forced assimilation and be a part of this society and forget about your cultural history…do it.”

This was the generation that had to assimilate in order to survive. These were the times where Native Americans were being taken from their families and homes, being sent to boarding school and being punished for speaking their native language. They were completely removed from their normal lifestyles.

Then, during Luger’s parents’ generation, they were people looking to reestablish pride their culture.

“My parents’ generation were looking to reestablish their connection to their indigenous roots,” Luger said. By doing so in the field of native art they needed to draw from historical past to understand who they are and where they came from. Their art making was focused on identity reestablishing what it means.”

Luger has grown up in a generation with the luxury of having parents who are proud of who they are. They created a platform for people like Luger to speak. They sustained culturally significant forms with their traditional style of art making.

“If we touch the sky its because of the pile of people below us who made an effort, stacking themselves for us to climb up on,” Luger said.

Luger’s work consists of various mediums including clay, paper, wool and steel, just to name a few. Many of his pieces use animal forms, but they vary to figurative work as well. He

Titled Anomaly, this bird ocarina, nestled in a birdhouse, is part of a larger installation of Lugar’s and is currently being displayed in the UAF Art Gallery. He used a combination of natural wood, heavily processed wood and unfired clay and created several birdhouses with little bird ocarinas nestled among them. - Sarah Manriquez/Sunstar

Titled Anomaly, this bird ocarina, nestled in a birdhouse, is part of a larger installation of Luger’s and is currently being displayed in the UAF Art Gallery. He used a combination of natural wood, heavily processed wood and unfired clay and created several birdhouses with little bird ocarinas nestled among them. – Sarah Manriquez/Sunstar

tends to work in a size range of 12-36 inches- a size that can realistically fit on a coffee table. This was a conscious and economic decision.

Luger describes himself as an object maker. And, there is a lot more wall space in a person’s home for paintings and wall hangings than there is for objects. This makes the space available for additional artwork expensive real estate for an artist. Luger intentionally makes works that would realistically exist and function in a home.

It is important to Luger not to sell his culture. He will allude to certain traditional symbols and forms but won’t actually use them in his work.

With that said, a restriction that Luger does not allow himself is the idea of precious. A great example is the piece Luger currently has displayed in the UAF Art Gallery called, “Anomaly.” He used a combination of natural wood, heavily processed wood and unfired clay and created several birdhouses nested in the far right corner of the gallery. There are small clay birds nesting among the houses. Luger intentionally used the unfired clay so the piece is physically cracking.

“It’s breaking apart,” Luger said. “This thing is doomed which is awesome. This is the only place this piece will ever exist, which is beautiful.”

This is not the first time Luger has created pieces that have later been purposefully destroyed. A better-known series of his work following this pattern is Stereotype: Misconceptions of the Native American. Luger addressed different stereotypes and preconceived notions created by pop culture and built ceramic stereos representative of each issue he wished to talk about. After their display he then proceeded to forcefully smash and destroy each ceramic stereo he created in the series thus figuratively smashing the stereotypes and bringing light to a much larger issue at hand.

“That idea of precious is probably what has limited artists in general to have that real conversation,” Luger said. “Because the reality is every piece of artwork is the byproduct of something really special. The making of it is what was really special and that’s the part that you can’t commodify; you can’t commodify the making. All you can commodify is the byproduct of that. This is probably what has helped me be so successful.”

Luger’s residency with UAF is coming to an end. He will be speaking to the public for a final presentation on Thursday, November 5th from 6pm-7:30pm, location to be announced.

Correction: In the Nov. 3 printing of the Sun Star, the name of visiting artist Cannupa Hanska Luger was misspelled in every iteration.  The correct spelling of his name has been applied to this article.

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