Brian Jungen is a member of the Dane-Zaa tribe of the First Nations of Canada, historically referred to as the Beaver tribe. His mother was Dane-Zaa, his father a Swiss immigrant. Jungen was raised in the rural town of Fort St. John, British Columbia, until his parents died in a fire. Afterwards, he lived with his Aunt, an unhappy experience. A loner and he spent much of his time outdoors. His parents recognized his artistic talent and had supported it. Determined to see where his talent would take him, he enrolled after high school in the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design. “That was pretty rough. I was a small-town kid, and I didn’t know anybody my age. I’d never lived in the city. I did meet other 18-year-olds, but they were city kids and way cooler than me.” He graduated from the Emily Carr Institute in 1992, with a degree in visual arts. He subsequently studied art history at Concordia University in Montreal.
Jungen’s early works were drawings. His real inspiration occurred in 1998, when he visited the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. He saw fossils and butterflies exhibited with Native American art “as though it was nature, not culture.” He wrote that the museum displays depressed him. Later he passed Nike Town, Nike’s New York City’s flagship store. “I saw the Air Jordans in display cases, and that’s when it really all kind of made sense.” The shoes were red, white and black, the colors of the Haida, the Kwakwaka’waka, and the Bella Coola nations, the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest. “Professional sports play a role in society that serves like a ritual and ceremony. Having experienced that within my own family–the dancing and drumming that I participate in–I know how important that is. So I wanted to use that–use things that people would recognize in their everyday world.”
Jungen says, “a lot of my exposure to my ancestry is through museums” where the confiscated items were displayed in glass vitrines (display cases), as were the Air Jordans in the Nike store. At the time, he was reading books on his history and had discovered in1876, the Canadian government banned Indian art and seized masks, blankets, and other objects in order to suppress Indian culture. Coincidentally, he was reading Levi-Strauss’s The Way of the Masks. “I was doing a residency, which provided both money and time for art making. So I bought these Air Jordans. I started taking them apart and reassembling them. But it was unplanned – the works evolved as I made them.”
In 1999, Jungen had a one person show at Charles H. Scott Gallery in Vancouver, where he introduced the series “Prototypes for a New Understanding”. The series consisted of original masks made from Air Jordans. He believed sport culture has much in common with Indian culture. Performance is a part of both cultures as both required the use of regalia in special events and ceremony. “It was interesting to see how by simply manipulating the Air Jordan shoes you could evoke specific cultural traditions whilst simultaneously amplifying the process of cultural corruption and assimilation. The Nike sculptures seemed to articulate a paradoxical relationship between a consumerist artefact and an ‘authentic’ artefact. I experiment until I can find a way I can manipulate them or take advantage of their iconography, without completely changing them. I like the fact that people can still recognize what the source material is.”
Jungen’s choice of AirJordans was intentional; the sports industry had appropriated so many names such as The Chiefs, Braves, and Redskins. “I felt that if these professional sports teams felt that they had every right to use this terminology, then I had every right to exploit their materials for my artwork.” Jungen certainly would applaud the Washington Redskins decision to change their name. Air Jordans went on the market in 1985 and sold for $65. Jungen made 23 masks, the same as Michael Jordan’s team number. Jordan owns one of the masks. “They became the iconic sneaker that everyone wanted, and they’re still like that. I was interested in paralleling that with Native art and now Native art is bought and fetishized.” Today a new pair of Air Jordans can sell for as much as $200.00, and Nike has produced 23 versions. Collectors treasure and display their collections of vintage Air Jordans, some vintage shoes sell for as much as $31,000.
Another of Jurgen’s concerns is the trash we discard that helps to pollute our environment. He remembers his mother: “She was constantly trying to extend the life of things, packages, and utensils. Once we had to use the back end of a pickup truck as an extension for our hog pen.” In 2000, while he was reading the history of whaling, the extermination of an animal significant in a variety of ways for the Haida culture, he happened upon a large number of broken white molded plastic chairs that were discarded at the curb. “Everything kind of clicked. “ Consisting only of white plastic chairs, “Shapeshifter “(2000)(57’’x260’’x52’’) forms the skeleton of a whale. The whale sculpture was hung from the ceiling as if on display in a natural history museum. Jungen referred to the whale as captured, “a parallel of the First Nations individual who is both marginalized and fetishized by mainstream culture.”
Jungen’s works go beyond his concern for the dispossession and appropriation of Native American arts to concerns for consumerism and the environment. “Untitled” (2001) was a work of sculpture seemingly made of ten stacked cheap wooden palette’s used to move mass produced goods. On closer inspection it is evident that they are not cheap palettes, but carefully and beautifully hand-made by the artists from red cedar, the wood used by Northwest Coast Indian carvers. The piece questions our first impressions, and our response to common objects; and it asks us to further examine and change our understanding. The work quietly suggests this understanding can extend to our judgment of people. In the same year, Jungen produced “Isolated Depiction of the Passage of Time”(2001) (44’’x46’’x39’’) was indeed a dozen stacks of plastic food trays. They were color coded to match statistics on the length of jail sentences given to First Nation individuals. Inside the stack a video continually played The Great Escape. “Court” (2004) was a life size replica of a basketball court made of 231 wood sweatshop sewing machine tables with hundreds of holes for attaching the sewing machines. It is a reminder that Air Jordans are made in sweatshops in Indonesia. Jungen’s political statements are intended to make us think. “Politically, I think persuasion is better than force.”
Jungen also incorporates arts and ideas from indigenous peoples around the world. In 2008, he went to Australia and camped on Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbor, with the Sydney airport nearby. Influenced by looking at the night sky and hearing planes go over, he created “Crux” (2008)(26’ x 20’) a mobile made from luggage which he tore apart to create the animals seen in the constellations, observed for thousands of years by the Aborigines, “those who sleep on the surface of the earth under the night sky.” These constellations made from suitcases, were hung from the ceiling enabling viewers to see them in the sky. Most easily identifiable are the large Alligator, a pink and purple Emu, a Shark (a gray Samsonite suitcase), and a Red Eagle. An over-turned rowboat is included; Jungen used it to go back and forth from the Island to the mainland. The work was made for and first displayed at Australia’s contemporary arts festival.
Jurgen has manipulated many different materials to create his unique works of art. In 2016, Jungen returned to Air Jordans for an exhibition featuring masks that are more abstract. Unlike his earlier masks, these can be worn. “Performance Bonnet” (2019)(32’’x31’’x30’’) is one of several of this new type. Masks traditionally were of animals and were worn as part of dance rituals asking the spirit world for help. Each mask allows the wearer to become one with the animal represented and therefore enter into the spirit world.
Jungen lives on his ranch near Vancouver in British Columbia, where he can hunt, raise animals and work. He prefers the peace and quiet of living alone. He is still a hard working artist and continues to respond to the world around him. Some of his latest works are “Plague Masks” (2020), which responds to our current COCID-19 pandemic.
In a recent interview Jurgen commented, “A lot of young people, when they see my work in museums, they kind of lose it because at first all they see that I cut up all these Air Jordans. There’s this kind of sacrilegious shock a lot of kids have. And then they see what it’s become. There’s this switch that happened. I like that. I like that is happens.”
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown six years ago, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL and Chesapeake College’s Institute for Adult Learning. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.