Canadian artist Brian Jungen uses unexpected found objects like Nike sneakers to create sculptural pieces that pay tribute to his Native American ancestry. Giving a nod to both his Swiss and Dunn-za First Nations heritages, the artist uses contemporary materials and juxtaposes them with traditional Native American craftwork. Nike sneakers, leather gloves, baseball bats and other sports gear are appropriated into traditional masks and ceremonial pieces, fusing modernity with Jungen’s ancestors' traditions.
Jungen uses found objects specifically chosen to echo some sort of social or cultural symbol or tradition. For example, the artist used Nike Air Jordans to make up traditional aboriginal masks. Keeping the popular sneakers unaltered and recognizable, Jungen draws attention to the culture surrounding expensive basketball shoes, where kids are beat up for their sneakers, or obscene prices are paid in order to fit in and look like everyone else. The masks also call to mind the relationship between consumerism and Native American artifacts and the exploitation of the traditions of indigenous peoples reflected in collectible souvenir shop gifts found across Canada.
Jungen further addresses the exploited traditions of the First Nations culture with works such as a whale skeleton made from plastic chairs bought at a Canadian Tire gas station, or a tent made from the skins of leather couches. The artist also uses sports equipment, carving totems in baseball bats, or hand stitching birds from gloves, to cast familiar objects in the roles of Native American traditions.
Jungen’s work has been celebrated and highly acclaimed across Canada, and he’s exhibited at the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Montreal Museum of Fine Art. He is also the first living Native American to display work at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C.