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Indigenous Art Dazzles This Summer

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Sneakers are arranged in front of a basketball hoop in one of Brian Jungen’s Indigenous-themed art pieces. (Adrian Brijbassi/Vacay.ca)

In a city that is basketball mad, Brian Jungen’s new exhibition is as perfectly timed as Kawhi Leonard’s famed buzzer-beater from the 2019 NBA playoffs.

Jungen rose to international renown for using Nike sneakers in his artwork. His form of breaking in a new pair of Air Jordans includes twisting, bending and spreading them into shapes that would likely cause a gym rat to look perplexed. The end result, though, is glee for an art lover.

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Brian Jungen has installed a gymnasium-themed hall at the Art Gallery of Ontario to house his collection of artwork created from Nike Air Jordan sneakers. (Adrian Brijbassi/Vacay.ca)

A member of the Dane-zaa Nation of British Columbia, Jungen’s art is themed around Indigenous culture. At just launched exhibition of his work at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), Jungen’s sneakers are crafted to create variations on totem poles, mythological symbols, ceremonial masks and animals. He also turns one into a quirky-looking hockey skate. Called “Friendship Centre”, the exhibition takes over much of the second floor of the AGO. The hall with Jungen’s clever and often humorous form of “sneaker art” has been playfully designed to look like a gymnasium, a plan that was in place long before Leonard’s heroics led the Toronto Raptors to the NBA championship.

“We had planned it a year or so ago. The Raptors’ winning coinciding with what we were doing is something that was just completely came out of the blue,” Jungen said during the media launch of the exhibition, which took place on the same day as the team’s historic parade through the streets of Toronto.

Discover More: See Raptors Fans Celebrate

Jungen said he was riveted to the Raptors during the playoffs and would be sure to watch the games when he had a break from setting up his exhibition. He was celebrating close to the AGO when the team clinched their first championship on June 13.

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Made entirely of discarded plastic patio chairs, “Cetology” is a sculpture of an orca that is a highlight of Brian Jungen’s Toronto exhibition. (Photo courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario)

“A lot of First Nations follow and play basketball. It’s just a natural fit for some of those small communities,” said Jungen, who lives in the Okanagan Valley. “It’s cheap and not expensive like hockey. You don’t need a lot of equipment or a facility like an ice rink. That’s important, and the Raptors have added a level of excitement, for sure.”

They’ve brought some serendipity to Jungen’s exhibition, too. Basketball fans in Toronto are crazed for the sport at the moment and there’s no doubt some will be drawn to check out Jungen’s Nike artwork. When they arrive they’ll see there’s plenty more to see. He’s an accomplished filmmaker and painter, as well.

His defining piece at the AGO is magnificent sculpture. “Cetology” features a collection of plastic patio chairs designed to resemble a skeleton of an orca. Jungen says his inspiration came from the last orca held in captivity at the Vancouver Aquarium. He wanted to demonstrate art’s ability to show the dichotomy of how “an endangered animal is made from an indestructible material.”

Jungen’s exhibit runs until August 25.

BC Museum’s First Nations Highlights

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James Hart’s masterpiece is the hallmark of the Audain Art Museum’s collection. It includes removable pieces and a secret door, along with iconography of the northwest Indigenous peoples. (Adrian Brijbassi/Vacay.ca)

Meanwhile, more provocative Indigenous art can be found 4,300 kilometres away, in Whistler, British Columbia, where the Audain Art Museum is preparing to launch an exhibit focused on the French influence on Emily Carr’s work. That exhibition, which shows Carr’s early use of colours and Impressionistic landscapes, provides an insight into how the Nuu-chah-nulth Nation artist evolved her work, moving away from derivative painting to a style distinctly hers and notably west coast. The exhibition, “Emily Carr: Fresh Seeing – French Modernism and the West Coast”, will run from September 21 to January 19. 

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Audain Art Museum chief curator Curtis Collins explains the symbolism in James Hart’s “The Dance Screen (The Scream Too)”. (Adrian Brijbassi/Vacay.ca)

Her work will join the permanent collection that includes the showcase piece, “The Dance Screen (The Scream Too)” by James Hart, a commentary on the threats faced by Indigenous groups and to the salmon they rely on.

“What was that Munch piece about?” Curtis Collins, the Audain’s director and chief curator, says about the sculpture that includes some carvings resembling Edvard Munch’s famed “Scream”. “It was about the anxiety of the Europeans in the Industrial Age. This is about anxiety of the First Nations people in the post-industrial age.”

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Sonny Assu’s “1884-1951” features Starbucks coffee cups strewn on a Hudson’s Bay blanket. (Adrian Brijbassi/Vacay.ca)

Deeper into the permanent collection is Sonny Assu’s compelling “1884-1951”, a stunning piece with myriad meanings embedded in it. First, the sculpture’s name is a reference to the 67 years when the Canadian government banned Indigenous groups from holding potlatch ceremonies, community-wide cultural gatherings of stories, food and dance. Similar to Jungen, Assu uses a recognizable everyday item — the Starbucks’ venti-size coffee cup — to show how colonialism has swamped the culture of Indigenous people and overtaken their land. Assu has coated the cups in copper, representing the mining operations and the pursuit of wealth that changed the landscape of Canada, and arranged them and their lids on a Hudson’s Bay blanket, another symbol of colonial infiltration.

Like Jungen’s art, there is a playfulness to Assu’s creation, and a powerful commentary behind it too.

MORE ABOUT THE ART GALLERY OF ONTARIO

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Air Jordans get the art treatment thanks to Brian Jungen’s imagination. See his inventive creations at the AGO through August 25. (Adrian Brijbassi/Vacay.ca)

Location: 317 Dundas Street West, Toronto, ON (see map below)
Website: ago.ca
Admission: On May 25, the AGO launched a major price restructuring that makes art accessible to a much broader audience. Entry to the gallery is free for anyone 25 and under as well as Indigenous community members. There is no cost for special exhibitions, either. Adult entry costs $25 but a season’s pass is just $35. For only $10 more, a Torontonian or frequent visitor to the city can have many chances to see the AGO’s collection, which includes 95,000 pieces.

MORE ABOUT THE AUDAIN ART MUSEUM

Location: 4350 Blackcomb Way, Whistler, BC
Website: audainartmuseum.com
Admission: $18 for adults and seniors (youth and children 18 and under can enter for free).
Current Exhibit: “Artistry Revealed: Peter Whyte, Catharine Robb Whyte and Their Contemporaries” focuses on the art of the Canadian Rockies.
Notable: The Audain, which opened in 2016, has quickly established itself as a favourite attraction in Whistler. It contains more British Columbia art than any other facility in the world and has fun activities, including weekly yoga sessions amid the artwork on Friday evenings.

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Adrian is the editor of Vacay.ca and VacayNetwork.com. He also edited "Inspired Cooking", a nutrition-focused cookbook featuring 20 of Canada's leading chefs and in support of the cancer-fighting charity, InspireHealth. "Inspired Cooking" was created in honour of Adrian's late wife and Vacay.ca co-founder, Julia Pelish, who passed away of brain cancer in 2016. Adrian has won numerous awards for his travel writing, travel photography, and fiction, and has visited more than 55 countries. He is a former editor at the Toronto Star and New York Newsday, and was the social media and advocacy manager for Destination Canada. His articles have frequently appeared in the Huffington Post, Globe & Mail, and other major publications. He has appeared on national and local broadcasts, talking about travel, sports, creative writing and journalism. In 2019, he launched Trippzy, a travel-trivia app developed to educate consumers about destinations around the world.