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Original Issue

A Perfect Fit

Artist Brian Jungen makes Native American tribal masks--and a statement--out of Air Jordan sneakers

Brian Jungen has never worn Nike Air Jordans. Well, maybe once when he was goofing around in his studio. "I tried on a pair as a joke," says the 35-year-old Vancouver artist. "I understand the kind of street cred those shoes have, but they're really not my thing."

Judging by the reconfigured Air Jordans in his solo show (it runs through Dec. 31) at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in Manhattan, Jungen's thing is to riff on the commercialization of cultural heritage. In a series of sculptures that conjoins Niketown and the American Museum of Natural History, he has taken dozens of sneakers and fashioned these icons of consumerism into Pacific Northwest Coast tribal masks.

The long-beaked birds and hollow-eyed spirits in his series entitled Prototypes for New Understanding are playful and provocative and oddly authentic looking. Insoles have been transformed into mouths, shoelace grommets form noses, shoe tongues emblazoned with MJ logos have been molded into ears. "Jungen's work harnesses the twin powers of mass culture and ancient history," raved New York Times critic Margo Jefferson. "Consumer goods have shamanistic power, while masks command high prices on the art market. There is an uncanny, ambivalent power when they meet."

Jungen was raised in small towns in British Columbia. His father, Jacob, was Swiss and his mother, Julie, was of Native Canadian (Dane-zaa) descent. Julie's family recycled just about everything, from car parts to shoe boxes. "The native tradition is to craft one object into another," Brian says. "It was a kind of improvised salvaging born out of practical and economic necessity, and it greatly influenced how I see the world as an artist."

In his early 20s, Jungen moved to Vancouver, where native artwork is a staple of a thriving tourist trade. He realized that these gift shop tchotchkes neatly summed up the assimilation of Native Canadian cultures into Western urban society. "Imagery originally intended for ceremonial purposes was being produced explicitly for private collections and the native art market," he says. "It had lost its context and no longer bore any relation to the economic realities on the aboriginal reserves. It had become part of popular culture."

Eight years ago, while visiting Manhattan, Jungen stumbled upon the Nike store. "I was overwhelmed by its magnitude," he recalls. "The corporate propaganda in the store displays explained the history of Nike shoes and the global role of Nike products. I felt like I was in an anthropology museum."

Not only were the sneakers as highly fetishized as aboriginal masks, but they came in the same colors--red, white and black. It was this "museumification of commodities" that prompted Jungen to cheekily tweak the footwear to resemble ancient artifacts.

Basketball shoes aren't the only sporting goods Jungen has reconfigured to comment on cultural hegemony. His show also includes six totemlike carved baseball bats. That series is called Talking Sticks.

Painted Steps

While Brian Jungen makes art with Nikes, Converse has come up with a new collection of walking art--its Pintando Pasos series. From the Spanish for Painted Steps, the sneakers are individually hand-painted by children in Pinotepa de Don Luis, a small coastal town in Oaxaca, Mexico, and Converse is donating all of the money made from its share of the $300-a-pair shoes to the village.

The Pintando Pasos project started two years ago when Juan Alcazar, a painter who runs an art school in the village, met the president of Converse de Mexico, José Zaga. Alcazar told Zaga about his program and made a proposal: Every month, his 10 students, who are all around 12 years old, would paint a number of sneakers--it's now at 80 pairs--if Converse would donate the proceeds.

Each pair is a signed, limited edition--for example, the Tenis Arena (above) is bright aqua with fish swimming through seaweed. Previously available only in Mexico City and Europe, Pintando Pasos can now be purchased in the U.S., but only in three boutiques, Atrium in New York City, Sportie L.A. in Los Angeles and Shoe Biz in San Francisco. Depending on how many people are willing to pay the price, the line could expand to more cities next year.



RECYCLED Jungen sees his masks as a lament for how native art has "lost its context."