B.C. artist Brian Jungen plays with First Nations traditions, sports imagery

TORONTO — A massive new art exhibit melds Indigenous traditions with modern art, pop culture and basketball.

B.C. artist Brian Jungen is known for large-scale installations and sports-inspired sculptures, including a series that resembles Northwest Coast masks made from ripped-apart Nike Air Jordan sneakers.

The largest-ever display of his work unfolds this week at the Art Gallery of Ontario. It’s named after Jungen’s piece “Friendship Centre,” in which he has transformed one of the AGO gallery rooms into a colourful basketball court.

Other pieces include golf-bag towers that resemble totem poles in an allusion to land-use disputes, a massive turtle made from fragments of white plastic stools, a whale skeleton fashioned from cut-up pieces of patio chairs and a group of Air Jordan sculptures made to look like ceremonial headdresses.

The 49-year-old Jungen says he likes to mix arts and sports, and uses mass-produced goods as a way to create familiar, accessible art pieces.

Brian Jungen: Friendship Centre opens to the public on Thursday, and is on view through Aug. 25.

The basketball fan says he was especially delighted to preview his work the same day as a massive parade took over the streets of downtown Toronto to celebrate the Raptors’ NBA championship win.

As thousands of sports fans roared just blocks away from Jungen’s media preview Monday, the Fort St. John, B.C.-born artist said he’s always looking for ways to connect to audiences.

“They’re usually mutually exclusive things, arts and sports, but not always. I’d like to see more mixing of the two,” said Jungen, who is of European and Indigenous heritage.

“I think sports really fulfills a big, maybe ancient, human need to gather and to have some sort of collective ceremony. So that’s kind of what some of my work is talking about.”

Jungen says his early work, especially, dealt with the public’s perception of First Nations art and that he’s driven by a mission to push Indigenous art in new directions.

He notes that his collection of shredded and resewn golf bags reference totem poles while alluding to land occupation disputes in Canada. That includes the 1990 Oka Crisis in which a developer wanted to expand a golf course on contested land that included a Mohawk burial ground.

“I don’t make traditional work, at all, but I use traditional technology in some of my work. I like to think that people can access my work in an unusual way because I use materials that they see everyday,” said Jungen.

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