James Luna: Half-Indian Half-Mexican

Kathleen Breidenbach

Why is this here? It annoys me. I see a homely, doughy guy with weird head and facial hair. I particularly dislike the front on shot. I feel like the photographer is rather crassly and obviously calling attention to male-female identity issues. It’s obvious he’s not a woman in the woman half. And he’s a pretty unattractive man in the man half. So I thought before I read the title of the work, which says something about me. For ten years, I’ve been annoyed by this thing, but never looked at the title.

So, thanks to this exhibition request for making me look.

Now I’m even more annoyed to learn that it’s not gender but racial and cultural. I presume. Indian/Mexican. It’s still identity. Like facial hair makes your identity. The way you wear your hair makes your identity. Why does he have to be chubby and doughy? If it’s Indian/Mexican, why not a sleek chiseled Indian? Or Charles Bronson?

[Googled Charles Bronson, who I always thought was part Indian. Wrong. Seems his father was a Tatar and his mother Lithuanian who grew up in a town near my own hometown, and he only spoke Russian and Lithuanian until he was a teenager, hence his interesting elocution, even though he grew up in Western Pennsylvania. A coal-miner’s son. That was more interesting than Half-Indian Half-Mexican.]

Given my strong response to this piece, I wonder what would I change about its display or about the work? I’d find a handsomer subject. Would that alter the ‘meaning’ of the work? I feel like a handsomer or more beautiful subject would engage me more in whatever the photographer is trying to say. Am I that shallow?

How does the appearance of the subject in a portrait contribute to our reaction to the work?

How do we balance these “gut-level” responses to our environment against more measured and studied approaches to understanding our world?

What role do ambiguous, disturbing, and stereotypical images play in the hallways of our institution?

—Kathleen Breidenbach

Staff/Faculty, The New School for Public Engagement