‘I Got an Illicit Thrill’: Watch Artist Brian Jungen Cut Up Nike Sneakers to Expose How Consumer Culture Exploits Native Communities

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the "Art in the Twenty-First Century" Season 8 episode, "Vancouver," 2016. © Art21, Inc. 2016.

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

When the artist, who’s heritage is Dane-zaa, visited a Nike store in the early 1990s, he saw pristine leather and rubber shoes sitting in vitrines, like priceless relics, ogled and swooned over by throngs of visitors. The artist began to make connections between the color schemes, shapes, and patterns in the sneakers and those in native northwest coast masks. 

In an exclusive interview filmed as part of Art21’s “Art in the Twenty-First 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 this kind of illicit thrill I got,” he told Art21, in “buying these AirJordans and, like, immediately starting to kind of cut them up.” Carving up the shoes, Jungen creates new objects from the materials, which he sews together and reconstitutes as artworks that recall native masks from British Columbia tribes, as well as modernist abstractions. 

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

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

Jungen’s work is now on view at L.A.’s Hammer Museum as part of the “Hammer Contemporary Collection” series of exhibitions. For the installation The Evening Redness in the West (2006), the artist sliced up softballs to create skull-like objects, the sewing stitches creating garish skeletal grins in the leather. The skulls are attached to cords linking to a DVD player that blasts audio from old Western films, pointing to the history of colonialism and violence inflicted on native communities in Hollywood (and beyond).

In his work, Jungen subtly, yet deftly highlights the unsavory and exploitative aspects of consumer culture that are so often ignored, all while paying homage to his native roots.

Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s Art in the Twenty-First Century series, below. “Hammer Contemporary Collection: Brian Jungen” is on view through October 31, 2021 at the Hammer Museum.

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new series of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series, like New York Close Up and Extended Play, and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.

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