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Standing Rock-Born Sculptor Fights for Cultural Survival

Cannupa Hanska Luger speaks to Creators about ceramics, culture, and the human need to make art.

Emerson Rosenthal

This article originally appeared on Creators.

A steel blindfold covers the head of a human female figure, yet, unlike Lady Justice, her arms and legs too are bound. Fiber, in an interlocking braid, ties her wrists, wraps her neck and belly, and snakes down to hitch her legs at the ankles. Over her shoulder, however, her hands clutch the means to freedom from her bondage: a soft white blade digs beneath the rope around her neck. Salvation via ceramics.

Artist Cannupa Hanska Luger was born on the Standing Rock Reservation. He is of Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Lakota, Austrian, and Norwegian heritage. A graduate with honors from The Institute of American Indian Arts, in 2016 he was the recipient of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation Artists Fellowship Award for artists who "represent the cultural continuity of Native peoples in contemporary contexts, and are the creative voices of their communities." His work in sculpture is figurative yet imaginative, assembling a panoply of cultural symbols—feathers, bones, textiles—into signifiers all his own. More mythopoeic than surreal, it frames him as a medium, a psychic intermediary between colonizer and Native, ancient tradition and modern understanding, soft clay and hard ceramics.

We Have Agency. ceramic, steel, fiber. Cannupa Hanska Luger. 2016 Images: D'Nelle Garcia, BLUE RAIN GALLERY

Instead of synthesizing these disparate elements into things tidy and deliverable, however, felted ceramic totems (his Once upon a time there were human beings series) and the aforementioned steel sculptures ( We Have Agency) exalt their differences. Luger's is an Otherness that seeks not approval; it stands independent, an Other with its own embrace around a thriving universe.

Fortunately, Luger's a major proponent of sharing: art, ideas, and resources all flow through him like a conduit. Whether with his wife, via her Broken Boxes podcast; with students, via residencies; with artist collectives, like Winter Count; or through galleries around the world, his is a practice that thrives on communication. Just days before the horrific federal raid of Sioux sacred lands in North Dakota, Creators spoke to Luger about ceramics, culture, and the human need to make art, via email.

Creators: Why ceramics?

Cannupa Hanska Luger: I work with a lot of different materials but I find ceramics or clay in particular to be a material that is very malleable. I have a history of painting and drawing and so clay is a wonderful form that can take the line and mark making in a very similar way to those art forms, ceramic transfers two-dimensional ideas into three-dimensional forms with consistency.

How'd you get to it and why'd you stick with it?

I got into ceramics in my undergrad while looking to develop a skill set that I had no knowledge of prior to going to school. I began working with clay and I just really liked it. And I stuck with it because in general the more I work with a material the more I learn from that material, and I'm always interested in developing skill sets to better accomplish ideas that I am working with. I find that the more skill sets I have, the easier it is to manifest any sort of concept. I tend to work with a variety of materials, but my work focuses on ceramic, steel and fibers as I find these three materials to be pinnacles of civilization throughout world history and they are often points of societal significance.

And... because before clay, I was a painter... and I'm pretty sure we are heading towards an apocalypse, and I am certain that when we get to this point, if my only skill set is painting, I will be food... I will be killed and eaten. So with this in the back of my mind, I wanted to have a skill set, some sort of craft, something that makes me valuable to a society of a post apocalyptic future, to be able to contribute and to ensure survival. So knowing ceramics has been key to this as well.

Wasted

What experiences—both in and outside of school—have informed your techniques?

Working with clay is like creating a relationship, every time you engage with the material itself, it teaches you volumes, and I am of the mind that you should fail fast and fail often. So trying to build with clay and pushing the limits of the material gives limitless information and technique for future building. My whole life is intertwined in relationship with my artmaking. Every experience that I have, both sleeping and awake, informs my making. And with my work, I am very interested in developing a story and a conversation about that intersection or communication about this experience. A significant amount of communication that I engage with in my studio practice is with the material. The material, often clay, dictates a lot of what can be manifested. And I am very aware that my practice doesn't end in the studio, as an Indigenous person I am aware that we have no deviation between art and culture, or culture and life, it is all part of the material. All of these things are blended together and necessary. And so my everyday experiences always find their way into my art practice and vice versa.

Catharsis I

What's an average studio day look like for you?

I probably put in about 12-16 hours a day in the studio during a crunch, which is very often. Due to the nature of ceramic work, the clay itself has dry time. So I tend to work in concept series and have multiple pieces on the workbench at a time. This way I can cycle between pieces and I always have a bunch of work in progress at various stages of development. It is a process of organizing and scheduling really short intervals of time. This is coupled with my everyday experiences being a father, as I have two little boys and a wife who are a major point of inspiration for my practice. I recognize time spent in the studio is time away from my family and so I strive to balance my time out as best as I can, knowing that my artistic practice brings me joy in life and is also what sustains us financially. I recognize the process of making time in the studio is really healthy for me psychologically and spiritually, and so all of these facets have to come together rather than be separate. It is a delicate balance of remembering to live in a whole system approach with your art and life. Nothing can be separate.

Nature

Few mediums (if any) outlive ceramics, yet destruction plays a major role in your practice. Can you explain why?

I believe that ceramic speaks about longevity but also transitions. I've only destroyed maybe a few bodies of work, and a lot of the times it's unfired clay that I'll let disintegrate back into the earth. So I wouldn't really consider it destruction as much as a transition. And really I feel that way about everything, I don't feel as though I've destroyed any works in my practice, but simply released them into transition. Like clay becomes rigid once it's fired, it becomes set, and sometimes you have to let go of those things in order for the real idea to be free. I think if there's anything I destroy in my practice it's the invulnerability of an idea. I destroy that every time I work. I recognize that I am transferring this very ethereal material which is a thought or concept into something physical; the transformation of idea to form, which happens through the clay. Another point of transition, which is really interesting when talking about ceramics, is that we can take the form of clay and transform the material at a molecular level into ceramic. This process is a really profound surrogate to our existence in the world. As if we have ideas and we work towards manifesting them but just like everything else in life, the application of time and pressure solidifies it. And I am really interested in taking something that is nearly indestructible, such as an idea, and transforming it into something that that can withstand the test of time but is also the most fragile that it will ever be, such as ceramic. When working with clay you take this very conceptual inspiration or idea and transform it into the physical world through an ecstatic experience which is the process of building, and then by applying tremendous heat to it, that form or idea solidifies and suddenly it has perceived value to any external observer, but at the same time, it is the most fragile it will ever be, from idea to clay to ceramic. There is something in that transformative process which is like art mimicking life mimicking art…

Can you tell me about your recent talk on "art as a means of cultural survival"?

From the lens as a Native artist, for most of the art industry's history, the work itself was dictated externally by collector and market, and which to some degree every aspect of the art world has been subject to; a proprietor deciding what the artwork is as it is transformed into a commodity, or a good for trade. But that is NOT what art is. No matter what background you come from art is a practice of cultural survival. As artists we represent our times, our experience of now, and we represent our cultures. We as artists are charged and almost obligated to maintain culture and be a mirror for it, to reflect upon it and show our current times. I don't think it is even conscious for me personally, and innately every artist who is reflecting the current times is participating in an active process of surviving culture and developing it. Adapting to the times and being able to communicate that through work. Because at the core that's what artists strive to do, communicate. The term cultural survival seems leans towards this idea of tradition, and within Native communities, we've been stifled by what is considered traditional through a Western lens. Although what i've observed and experienced in my life as a Native person is that adaptation is the ultimate core of any cultural survival. It's not about maintaining old ways, but about developing processes to communicate those old ways into our contemporary time. So the development of material science or accessing different media platforms to engage with community are part of a traditional practice. As artists we have our foot in so many doors that we can engage and record the adaptation as it is happening, yet we are often too close to see what our impact will have on the future.

Everything Anywhere

Finally, is artmaking or art-showing a greater form of resistance?

From a Native perspective, the making of art speaks volumes of our history as a people continuing to exist here in resistance. It allows us to see that it is because of those before us who have sacrificed and made great strides in order to get us to this point. It reminds us that we are only borrowing this place and this time from generations far into the future we may never meet. On a personal level the making is very important to me because as living things we exist in a state of crisis or emergency. That is the rule of life, it is not the exception. Any idea of peace or contentment with our surroundings doesn't speak about resistance and it doesn't speak about true existence in our world. I think about the way we as humans walk, by literally hurling ourselves forward, and if we didn't continue to operate with putting one foot in front of the other, we would fall flat on our faces. So this is the state of emergency or crisis that I speak of, we are constantly catching ourselves from falling down. We are in a subconscious act of maintaining our footing and this is like all of life, we are constantly hurling ourselves forward with the threat of bodily damage, in a state of emergency, and we must react and with intention. The act of making art is also this concept. It's incredibly courageous to be artists because we are operating within an emotive communication stance. We spend a lot of the time by ourselves, and we are processing very emotional states and shaving those bits and pieces off of ourselves and those pieces are being embedded into the work that we make. Art is a perfect example of resistance to our social structures that devalue any emotional response to existence. Because emotions are the tools of the artist, which we share in the showing as the artwork is complete. With that being said i'm not sure where the resistance is the strongest. Could resistance strongest through observation? I personally feel like the work I make is complete at that art-viewing/showing state. It's the process of making that keeps me going everyday in creating the work, knowing that it's going to be out in the world. Maybe it's best to simply remember that bravery and courage doesn't come from fearlessness, they come from recognizing that which you fear most and moving forward anyway. And that idea is important to the artist's role in society, to any human being who is acting with resistance. Recognizing that emotions do not limit us, but create an opportunity to move into that which makes us most uncomfortable. In the end why separate the making and the viewing of art? When what may be most important is the willingness of and by both parts, seizing the opportunity to engage.

Click here to visit Cannupa Hanska Luger's website, and here to follow the artist on Instagram.

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