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Native American mask made from Nike Air Jordan shoes

Artist Brian Jungen

Native American turns common objects into cultural treasures

By Nick Berray | null null , null
Kid Reporter Nick Berray with a piece made by artist Brian Jungen. (Photo Courtesy Nick Berray)
Kid Reporter Nick Berray with a piece made by artist Brian Jungen. (Photo Courtesy Nick Berray)

What would you do with old plastic chairs, Nike sneakers, golf bags, and a whole lot of suitcases? If you are artist Brian Jungen, (pronounced Young-gen) you would turn them into exquisite and unique works of art. Jungen is a contemporary artist currently featured in a major new exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

Jungen's Indian heritage is that of the Canadian Dunne-Za First Nations. He is the first living artist to have his work displayed at the Smithsonians' American Indian museum.

His sculptures are made of everyday objects molded and recycled into symbolic pieces of Indian culture. Asked about his inspiration for his art, Jungen talks about having grown up observing his Indian relatives re-use everything from "car parts to shoe boxes" to extend their usefulness.

"It was a kind of salvaging born out of practical and economic necessity, and it greatly influenced how I see the world as an artist," Jungen said in a Smithsonian publication.

Brian Jungen's art can be enjoyed on many levels. The sculptures are attractive and clever to look at and are often witty. They also make you think about the strange combination of modern living in a natural world.

"Part of the charm of Brian's work is that it is native, but you don't have to be native to appreciate it," said Kerry Boyd, Assistant Director of Exhibitions, Operations, and Program Support for the museum. "The objects are beautiful, but also make comments about social, political, and environmental issues that have to do with his native heritage and with being conscious of the larger people on the earth."

Among the many works of art on display are:
Crux: An enormous mobile that hangs from the ceiling in the central hall of the museum. It features an emu, a golden eagle, a possum, a crocodile, and a shark—all made out of plastic luggage. If you look closely, you can see many fascinating and humorous features. For example, the emu’s eyes are represented by the wheels of a rolling suitcase, and the shark’s mouth is made from a handle. The artist also mixes interesting colors that make the animals more striking.

Shapeshifter: A 21-foot-long whale skeleton whose strong, white bones tower over the viewer. But are they really bones? Upon closer inspection, you find that they are actually parts of plastic deck chairs! This piece is another good example of how Jungen can transform unnatural objects into natural creations.

Prototypes for New Understanding: A series of 23 masks made entirely out of Nike Air Jordan sneakers. The artist visited the Niketown store in New York City about a decade ago and was inspired to make traditional Northwest coast Aboriginal masks out of these modern designer sports shoes. The results are works of art that are colorful, symmetrical, and humorous designs of a variety of faces, both human and animal.

The exhibit, aptly named Strange Comfort, will be featured at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D. C., until August 8, 2010. To see more of Jungen’s work, you can visit the web site at

American Indian Heritage Month

For more Kid Reporter coverage of the annual celebration of America's native heritage, check out the American Indian Heritage Month Special Report.


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