“Nobody gets out alive on planet Earth,” says Cannupa Hanska Luger.
He's stating the obvious, of course, but the New Mexico-based artist is also talking about the title of his show in Kansas City: “Life is Breathtaking.”
“I like this notion that life is breathtaking because indeed it truly is,” he says. “Every glorious moment that you have is glorious because it will not happen again and eventually will end. We would lose description if it was infinite, if it was perpetual.”
Luger’s work is sometimes high-profile and sometimes politically charged, as it was when he created mirrored shields for activists protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota in 2016.
The protesters, who called themselves water protectors, held up the shields to direct attention away from themselves and back at the law enforcement agents whose job it was to control the crowd.
“Police are human beings, and they need water just as we all do, the mirror shield is a point of human engagement and a remembering that we are all in this together,” Luger wrote on his website.
Luger’s is the fifth exhibition of contemporary American Indian artists to be mounted at Travois, an economic development consulting firm in the Crossroads, where owners Phil and Elizabeth Glynn help design and find funding for projects that benefit Native Americans, such as building affordable housing and running high-speed internet into remote Alaskan villages.
“I think a lot of people think that American Indians are part of the past,” says Phil Glynn. “I don’t think there’s a recognition in America that they’re our fellow citizens, they’re with us, they’re part of the modern culture, they’re lawyers and doctors and politicians and artists, and everything else.”
Traveling for work, the couple has seen the modern American Indian experience in nearly all 50 states. However, Glynn says he knows that most of their fellow Kansas Citians haven’t grown up around indigenous people — that they’re aware of.
He also knows that, while Travois works with groups all over the nation, they don’t have a lot of foot traffic in and out of their office.
So, to open their doors to the community, and in turn open modern American Indian culture to the community as well, Travois assembled a nine-part series of art exhibitions juried by a panel of art experts.
Among the judges were Bruce Hartman, executive director of the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art; Gaylord Torrance, senior curator of American-Indian art at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art; and America Meredith, publishing editor of First American Art Magazine and a registered member of the Cherokee nation. They’ve selected shows that represent traditional arts such as weaving, and more contemporary work involving architectural interpretations of American Indian historical events.
“We want people to see what we get to see, which is that Indian country is rich and diverse, and there are young and exciting artists working in all kinds of media,” Glynn says. “People in Kansas City who love art don’t get to see it much. It’s happening, but it needs to be happening more.”
Though the 17 pieces that make up Luger’s exhibition were taken from his existing body of work, they speak more to the individual than much of his work about society as a whole.
The show incudes pieces in a variety of media but is ceramic-centric. Four ceramic buffalo skulls are representative of the spirit of the collection, Luger says. Each skull is inscribed with a Latin phrase, an idea he took from the millennia-long practice of inscribing sundials.
The skulls contain a message pertaining to cherishing the time we’re given and not waiting until later to celebrate our lives.
He’s using this old practice and, Luger says, “embedding it within the narrative of a 21st century Native experience.”
Luger is descended from and is an enrolled member of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation tribes. His family also has Germanic and Scandinavian blood.
He says he agrees with Glynn that society is stuck on a certain portrayal of Native people.
Even he had “sugar cereal and MTV” growing up in the United States in the 1980s, he points out. But he was also, he says, “thirsty for something that spoke to me as a living Native person that wasn’t perpetuating a mythology.”
Now, as far as he’s concerned, it’s time to bring another, more accurate image to the forefront.
“Native people have been astronomers and scientists and health professionals. These are all narratives that existed prior to contact but that were kind of subdued after contact,” he says.
“We’ve been reduced to braves and warriors. But what about our astronomy, what about all that has been utilized within the western health practices and medicine?”
The Travois exhibition attempts to start answering those questions.