Being Canadian gives us a unique chance to experience so many cultures at once. For many of us, this feature is one of the best things about the country. But for Indigenous peoples living in Canada, the reality is more complicated.
For centuries, they have had to endure seeing their own language, art forms, and traditions dominated by Western cultures. And even though progress has been made over the years, big challenges still remain.
That's what makes the work of Brian Jungen so compelling.
Brian Jungen, transformer
For over twenty years, this half-Swiss, half-Indigenous member of the Dane-zaa nation in B.C. has been making art that combines Indigenous art with Western culture.
His most famous pieces? Sculptures like this one that use Nike Air Jordans (yep, the basketball shoes!) to make pieces based on traditional headdresses and masks.
Amazing, right? And as we found out at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, these pieces are only the beginning.
Right now, the AGO is showing Friendship Centre, the largest collection of Brian's artwork ever in one place. In each case, he uses a common piece of Western culture — gas cans, baseball gloves, plastic crates — and turns them into fantastic sculptures — dragonflies, statues, and a huge turtle shell — that reflect Indigenous art and life.
So NFL football jerseys are woven in the style of traditional blankets.
A stack of golf club bags become towering totem poles.
A bunch of leather sofas? A teepee.
Old office chairs? Why not make them into a ceremonial drum?
And maybe the most breathtaking of all? Hundreds of everyday plastic chairs cut and rebuilt into a life-size whale skeleton!
That one was especially cool to stand beside!
So much to reflect upon
Art is meant to be exciting to look at, and certainly Brian's work is. But great art goes a step further — it asks us to think, too. And that's where Friendship Centre really shines.
Walking through this exhibit, a lot of things went through our minds. Some of them were playful: Wow! That's a lot of shoes! or We'll never look at a deck chair the same way again! But others were a lot more serious.
For one, seeing the shapes of traditional Indigenous art in this way really makes you think about how recognizable that style is. Whether it's a totem pole, a thunderbird, or a headdress, it's amazing how a bunch of torn up golf bags and shoes still look like Indigenous artwork.
And remember what we said earlier about how Indigenous cultures have had to endure centuries of seeing their own symbols used by Western culture? Like, say, on one of these?
Well, Brian's work flips that whole relationship around. Now it's Western culture that is being shown through an Indigenous eye. Clever, right?
What do these pieces make you think about? If you get the chance, you should see them in person for yourself!
Brian Jungen Friendship Centre is on display daily at the Art Gallery of Ontario until August 25, 2019. Gallery is open Tuesday to Sunday, and visitors 25 and under are free.