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Art & Architecture Brian Jungen’s audacious Indigenous art feels timely and necessary for a Canada attempting reconciliation

Artist Brian Jungen is seen in the midst of Friendship Centre, an installation of his sculptures assembled as a basketball court, at the Art Gallery of Ontario on June 16, 2019.

Aaron Wynia/The Globe and Mail

Read with hindsight, the early biographies of modernist artists bristle with dramatic inevitability. Little Pablo Picasso amused his friends by drawing pictures with one continuous line, never lifting the pencil from the paper. Young Alexander Calder made wire jewellery for his sister’s dolls. There is that same sense of fateful beginnings when you read, in the catalogue for his new exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario, that the seven-year-old Brian Jungen sold his first horse to buy every piece of Lego in the Hudson’s Bay store in Fort St. John, B.C., enough to fill a chest freezer.

Still, another aspect of Jungen’s biography seems equally telling. His father was the child of recent Swiss immigrants to Canada; his mother was Dane-zaa and his paternal family in the interior of Northern British Columbia farmed land that had been part of the reserve belonging to his mother’s nation before it was relocated by the government with unfulfilled promises of other territory. When Jungen was 7, both his parents were killed in a house fire and he was raised by a paternal aunt and uncle further south. He only re-established contact with his Indigenous family as a youth, when his sister applied to regain the status their mother had lost through marriage. Jungen then joined the Doig River Nation, where he hunts with his maternal uncle to this day.

Jungen must have learnt to negotiate between two cultures from an early age. For all its easy approachability, his clever disassembling of consumer sports gear to make Indigenous masks, headdresses and totems feels like a particularly timely and necessary art for a Canada attempting reconciliation.

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Jungen, who trained in Vancouver and apprenticed in New York, launched a career-making body of work in the late nineties when he began picking apart Nike Air Jordans and turning the red, white and black shoes into copies of traditional Northwest Coast masks. Prototype for New Understanding is a 23-part series of these soft sculptures created between 1998 and 2005, 20 of which are showing at the AGO. Then Jungen went on to make a cigar-store Indian from baseball gloves, stack golf bags into totems, weave blankets out of football and baseball jerseys and, more recently, fashion copies of Lakota horse masks from more brightly coloured Nike shoes.

Prototype for New Understanding #10 (2001) is part of a series of soft sculptures by artist Brian Jungen that repurpose Nike Air Jordan shoes as Northwest Coast Indigenous masks.

Aaron Wynia/The Globe and Mail

Not content to simply mount a career survey, and emboldened by the size of the galleries they were filling in the AGO’s Zacks Pavilion, Jungen and contemporary curator Kitty Scott have installed all this sporting work in a mock basketball court, created with colourful lines painted on the black floor. Jungen calls this new installation Friendship Centre, which also gives the exhibition its title, a reference to the Indigenous community centres where everything from committee meetings to traditional dance takes place in the all-important gym.

So, at the AGO, you are invited into an Indigenous space to experience an art that is instantly effective: The wit in the incongruous merging of the brand-name running shoe and the museum mask, two high-value yet very different objects, is quickly grasped. And the craft is immediately visible and deeply impressive. Jungen, who returned to the Nike running shoe in 2015 after a decade’s hiatus, can now fluff out the laces to turn them into hair and transform their synthetic soles into feathers: Two war bonnets from 2017 feature great plumes of spliced shoes as Jungen rises to ever-greater virtuosity.

Two war bonnets from 2017 feature great plumes of spliced shoes as Jungen rises to ever-greater virtuosity.

Casey Kaplan/Courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario

The works can initially read almost as one-liners: To anyone from Central Canada, his golf-bag totem poles feel like a particularly deft jab at the Oka crisis of 1990, triggered when the Quebec town tried to expand its golf course into a Mohawk burial ground. In fact, they were more broadly inspired by tensions over land use in B.C., where pristine suburban golf courses are often located on territory leased long-term from nearby Coast Salish communities. More aggressively than the humorous masks, the towering poles probe the contradictions between Indigenous and settler world views.

Stay with the work a while and it becomes clearer that Jungen’s negotiations between these extremes are manifold: His work compares the modern mass-produced consumer good with the historic hand-crafted art; it suggests layers of references to sporting competition as a replacement for actual battle, from the feathered war bonnets to white appropriation of Indigenous personas for athletes and teams. Yet the basketball court also offers a social salve for the communities that gather there. The coincidence that this show opened the same week Toronto celebrated the Raptors’ victory in the NBA championship with a massive public assembly makes the tensions in Jungen’s work all the more visible as it reflects on the particular transcendence that sport may offer its fans.

Still, whether you view fandom as an expression of community pride or jingoist aggression, The Friendship Centre’s basketball court feels as welcoming as its title. In the next room, Scott’s installation evokes the quieter, darker space of the Eurocentric museum: The centrepiece here is Jungen’s Cetology (2002), a large sculpture of a whale skeleton built entirely from white plastic lawn chairs, its commentary on our relationship with the environment hanging from the ceiling like a natural-history exhibit.

In this museum-like space, Scott has also installed more recent work in which Jungen takes his metaphors from art rather than sport. A series of delicately pierced jerry cans and water jugs are named for the minute patterns Jungen has punctured in their colourful plastic surfaces: Dragonfly, Seed, Triangle Repeater. The works, from 2008-12, represent the evolution of Jungen’s relationship with Indigenous art, as he increasingly turns from making things that look Indigenous into actually using traditional techniques. He has said he can’t manage the fine work of beading, which many Dane-zaa women would do routinely, so the puncturing of the cans represents beading in reverse. For isolated communities that are near pipeline routes but far from gas stations or where boil-water advisories are commonplace, these are everyday objects, yet the puncturing renders them useless as containers, turning them into surprisingly beautiful sculptures – art for art’s sake.

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Jungen is now toying with that modernist ethos, investigating a gap between art and craft that is unknown in Indigenous traditions. He has tanned hides and strung them over his collection of modernist chairs, disguising the high-design furniture and repurposing it as drums. Similarly, his most recent Nike headdresses are large, abstract pieces in which the shoes are deconstructed like a Cubist painting or a photographic study in motion.

All this work has produced a lot of empty Nike boxes: The exhibition begins with a display of Jungen’s archive, the photographs, documents, bits of plastic, minor art experiments and major ephemera that he has squirrelled away over the years in the shoeboxes, building up the raw material for those manifold negotiations. And Friendship Centre ends with a silent colour film shown on five screens, in which Jungen, artist Duane Linklater and Jungen’s uncle Jack Askoty go moose hunting. The title is Modest Livelihood, after the 1999 Supreme Court decision that Indigenous hunting rights allowed for subsistence, but not the accumulation of wealth, and the contemplative 46-minute film includes winter scenes in which a moose is shot and butchered on the spot. This is not beside the point: Turns out, the skills needed to skin a moose are rather similar to those needed to disassemble running shoes.

Friendship Centre continues at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto until Aug. 25 (ago.ca).

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