Watch artist Brian Jungen cut out Nike sneakers to show how consumer culture exploits Native Americans

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What do Nike sneakers and Native American art have in common? For Vancouver artist Brian Jungen, it’s clear: they’re both highly commodified.

When the artist, whose legacy is Dane-zaa, visited a Nike store in the early 1990s, saw immaculate leather and rubber shoes posed in display cases, like priceless relics, ogled and passed out by crowds of visitors. The artist began to make connections between the color schemes, shapes and patterns of the sneakers and those of the masks indigenous to the northwest coast.

In an exclusive interview filmed as part of Art21’s ‘Art in the 21st Century’ series in 2016, the artist described the commonalities as a ‘strange coincidence’ and then got to work with the spark of an idea.

“There was that kind of illicit thrill that I had,” he told Art21, “buying these AirJordans and, like, immediately starting to cut them. Sculpting the shoes, Jungen creates new objects from the materials, which he sews together and reconstructs as works of art reminiscent of the native masks of British Columbia’s tribes, as well as modernist abstractions.

Brian Jungen, installation view of “The Evening Redness in the West” (2006). Photo: SITE Photography. Courtesy of Catriona Jeffries, Vancouver, Courtesy of the Hammer Museum.

Jungen’s work is now on display at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles as part of the “Hammer Contemporary Collection” series of exhibitions. For installation Evening redness in the West (2006), the artist cut out soft balls to create objects resembling skulls, the stitches creating screaming skeletal smiles in the leather. The skulls are attached to cords connected to a DVD player that plays audio from old Western movies, pointing to the history of colonialism and the violence inflicted on Indigenous communities in Hollywood (and beyond).

In his work, Jungen subtly but skillfully points out the unsavory and exploitative aspects of consumer culture that are so often overlooked, while paying homage to his native roots.

Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21 Art in the 21st century series, below. “Hammer Contemporary Collection: Brian Jungen” is on view until October 31, 2021 at the Hammer Museum.

This is a part of “Art on Video”, a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 which offers you clips of current artists. A new series from the flagship series of the Art21 association Art in the 21st century is available now on PBS. Watch all episodes from other series, like Close up of New York and Extended play, and discover the organization’s educational programs on Art21.org.

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