Donald Munro

With buffalo-head sculpture, Cannupa Luger brings the Great Plains to Fresno State

Ten ceramic buffalo heads dominate Cannupa Hanska Luger’s “Pillar,” his new multimedia sculpture at Fresno State.

Ten is a far cry from 50 million, which is the number of buffalo living on the Great Plains estimated to have been wiped out in the second half of the 19th Century.

But 10 is a lot more than just one.

And that is significant to Luger, whose art fuses his Native American background – he was born in North Dakota and traces his heritage to the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara and Lakota tribes, as well as Austrian and Norwegian descent – with a global perspective on humanity’s impact on the environment.

We’re all in this together, he believes. Our actions impact each other. Looking at the world as one big vast resource just there for the taking, without acknowledging the longer-term effects, isn’t just selfish. It’s stupid.

“This country likes rugged individualism and that you can do it yourself,” he says. “I wanted to represent the fact that rugged individualism and the idea you can do it yourself is B.S. It’s fake and it hurts.”

“Pillar” was commissioned by Fresno State’s Center for Creativity and the Arts, which brought Luger in for an extended campus residency co-hosted by the university’s art and design department. He has been working with students and community members on several projects, including the 10-foot “Pillar,” situated on the west lawn of the Conley Art Building, and an exhibition titled “Old Dominion” at the university’s M Street graduate studios, which continues through April 15.

The sculpture is scheduled to be dedicated 1:30 p.m. Friday, April 7.

Known for his “ceramic centric” multidisciplinary approach, the New Mexico artist tackles the complexities of indigenous identity bumping up against the imperatives of the 21st century. He’s also taken on a role as activist, most prominently in the last year as he participated in the protests at Standing Rock in North Dakota. He drew particular attention for designing mirror shields for the protestors.

For him, the Standing Rock issue wasn’t so much a protest against something – in this case a pipeline – but for something: safe, clean water. One of those resources that can seem abundant and never-ending until it’s eventually gone.

Like the buffalo.

“This country really should have a monument to that loss,” he says.

His “Pillar” is a beginning.

Heady question

Why buffalo skulls?

“All of it came out of a photograph I grew up seeing of a pyramid of buffalo skulls 40 feet tall, with a little tiny turn of the century guy sitting on top,” he says.

The buffalo were hunted primarily for two things: the tongue, which was a delicacy, and the hide, which was prized.

The rest of the giant beasts were left to rot on the plains, leaving behind a vast expanse of bones. In an effort to get rid of those bones, the government started bundling them up and shipping them off to incineration plants. The resulting material was primarily used as pigments (for cosmetics and industrial paint) and for the calcium bicarbonate that was produced, which was used as a slow-releasing fertilizer.

“Even today, the corn and wheat that’s grown there is still utilizing buffalo,” he says. “It’s part of the vehicles we drive, the animals we eat that eat this corn.”

Another use for the charred buffalo bones, ironically, was as a way to increase the carbon content of steel, which furthered the industrial revolution, causing more railroads to be built and more buffalo to be exterminated.

Because the skulls of the buffalo had the largest volume to the lowest density, however, they took up the most room and had the least payoff in terms of transportation. So the skulls were often left behind until last, put into the massive piles Luger had seen.

And, hence, his idea for “Pillar.”

Before retreating to reservations, his people had an important symbiotic relationship with the buffalo, using the animal for food, clothing and shelter.

Now, symbolically, it becomes a focus for this latest artistic adventure by Luger.

A vertical stack

Dusty and behind schedule – a common state of existence for an artist – Luger stands in the Fresno State ceramics studio working with ceramic molds.

“Most of this is muscle memory for me, so I can work and talk at the same time,” he says.

Luger is a bright, quick bundle of ideas, jumping from conceptual to realistic notions as if he’s hopping across rocks in a stream. His idea for “Pillar” was first to build an archlike structure of curved steel beams on which to position his buffalo heads, creating an immersive environment for the viewer.

But his direction turned. Now the steel beam is vertical, with the heads stacked one by one, almost like one of those mileage signs with arrows pointing to various far-flung cities in different directions.

He likes the idea of a vertical stack, of a striated layer, because of what it suggests about one element building on another.

If you’re looking for something literal in the piece, you can find it. Closest to the ground, the first skull has black accents, suggesting a hydrocarbon level. (Until modern times, oil was worthless to humanity. Now look how it drives the world economy.) That’s topped by a nod to groundwater in blue. One skull is dedicated to corn, another wheat. There’s even an “American” skull, festooned in red, white and blue.

Another interpretation: Each skull represents a precious extractable resource that has been removed from the land.

But don’t feel as if you have to connect with anything concrete in the piece, Luger says. Find your own interpretation.

“All of this stuff is woven in,” he says. “Whether people pick it up or not is secondary to the act of making it, and having these sorts of conversations and how it affects them. Even if they think it’s dumb, that’s important.”

He returns repeatedly to the ideas of individualism and ruggedness that form a part of the human identity (and particularly the American one).

“I think that strapping ruggedness has diminished our species,” he says. “It’s been a lot of damage so far because we aren’t aware of our wake,” he says, referring to the waves left by a ship or some other object moving through the water. “But we have wake, man.”

Still, he brings an artist’s determination to his goal of getting people to interact – whether it’s to think about, argue with or endorse what he stands for. It isn’t always easy. (Standing Rock was not a failure, he says, because even though the pipeline was ultimately approved, it raised a tremendous amount of recognition for the environment.) He wants people to think about connection and community.

“If we start to realize that we are hyper-dependent on one another and exist on a continuum, you start to realize that anyplace we stand is on the shoulders of giants – or on a pile of bones.”