How this Indigenous artist turns basketball shoes into commercialist critique

In "Brian Jungen: Friendship Centre," a new exhibition at the AGO, sports gear becomes the material for thought-provoking art
By Carla Lucchetta - Published on July 5, 2019
Nam Kiwanuka talks to artist Brian Jungen and AGO curator Kitty Scott.

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Most Canadian cities have friendship centres — community hubs that connect Indigenous people in urban areas and provide health and social services, spiritual guidance, and youth, sports, and cultural programs. Artist Brian Jungen, who's of Dane-Zaa and Swiss ancestry and grew up in the interior of British Columbia, had these centres in mind when organizing his latest exhibition, Brian Jungen: Friendship Centre, at the Art Gallery of Ontario, in Toronto. 

“I had a studio in Vancouver for a long time ago that was right behind the East Vancouver friendship centre,” he tells Nam Kiwanuka on The Agenda in the Summer. “So I spent a lot of time there; it was wonderful to meet people and hang out there. I wanted to re-create that feeling for my exhibition.”

The setting resembles a gymnasium: many of the works use popular sports gear, such as Air Jordan basketball trainers, to explore themes related to consumerism, comodification, colonialism, and Indigenous culture. “I see from my own Indigenous community how important ceremony and tradition and ritual is for the strength of a community,” he says. “So I kind of see sports in a much more global way fulfilling the same sort of function.”

Here is a selection of pieces from the collection.

a mask made out of an Air Jordan running shoe
Brian Jungen, Prototype for New Understanding #4, 1998. Nike Air Jordans, human hair, 46 x 34 x 18 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Catriona Jeffries, Vancouver. Collection of Claudia Beck and Andrew Gruft, Vancouver. © Brian Jungen. Photo: Trevor Mills

“In the late '90s, I used to spend a lot of time in New York City. And I saw the Nike Town store was showing some of their early Air Jordan prototypes in display cases that were like museum cases. And that very same day, I was actually at the Museum of Natural History looking at Native American artwork. To me, it kind of clicked — this connection between both of these things being treated as very fetishized, almost commodities.”

a raven made of Air Jordan running shoes
Brian Jungen. King Capra, 2015-2016. Nike Air Jordans, 63.5 x 38.1 x 58.42cm. Munich Re, Canada Life.  © Brian Jungen
golf bag totem poles
Brian Jungen, left to right, 1980, 1970, 1960 (2007). Polyester, metal, painted wood on paper sonotube, 396 x 122 x 91 cm each. Courtesy of the artist. Collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario.  Purchased with the assistance of The David Yuile and Mary Elizabeth Hodgson Fund, 2007; Promised Gift of Rosamond Ivey; Gift of Michael and Sonja Koerner, 2018, Toronto. © Brian Jungen

“In Metro Vancouver, there are a number of golf courses on leased land from different nations — Musqueam Nation and other Coast Salish nations. And it struck me as a completely polarized view of land use. And here we have sanctioned, government-controlled, federal-government-controlled housing on and off the contested land and then a golf course, which just seemed like the ultimate kind of luxury. If you're Indigenous and you mention golf or golf courses, you almost always think of the Oka Crisis in 1990, which stemmed from a dispute over the expansion of a golf course. So I took cues from all that, and, I think, especially if you're somebody who remembers that period or is aware of that type of land use, then you can pick up on those. Everybody comes with a predetermined idea of what a totem pole looks like, so I didn't actually have to change them very much. We all have that shared idea of what that object looks like.”

a whale made out of plastic patio chairs
Brian Jungen. Cetology, 2002. Plastic chairs, 161 x 1260.4 x 168.7 cm. Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Purchased with the financial support of the Canada Council for the Arts Acquisition Assistance Program and the Vancouver Art Gallery Acquisition Fund. VAG 2003.8a-z © Brian Jungen, Photo: Trevor Mills, Vancouver Art Gallery

“I was fascinated with [patio] chairs because they have beautiful form. And once they're broken, people just chuck them out because you can't fix them. So they're incredibly wasteful. But I also was researching the whaling industry on the West Coast, around 20 years ago. And I read that the petroleum industry replaced whale oil as a source of heating oil. That was very interesting to me, so I decided to make something totally organic, like a skeleton, out of something that's totally inorganic, this petroleum-based plastic.”

Brian Jungen: Friendship Centre can be seen at the Art Gallery of Ontario through to August 25.

Watch Brian Jungen and AGO curator of modern and contemporary art Kitty Scott talk to Nam Kiwanuka on The Agenda in the Summer. 

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