From This Native Land: Towards a ‘New Understanding’ of Brian Jungen’s Nike Masks and the Cultural Implications of Bricolage

Christina Froschauer obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Archaeology from Simon Fraser University in 2001, and she is currently enrolled in the Art History and Studio Arts program at Concordia University in Montreal, QC. She extends a special thank you to Dr. Karl Froschauer, whose appreciation for First Nations Art has had a great influence on Ms. Froschauer.

As the central work to Brian Jungen’s series, Prototypes for a New Understanding (1998-2003), Nike Masks (1999) present the artist’s hybridization of brand name sneakers with Northwest Coast Native ceremonial masks. In turn, Jungen’s Nike Masks have become objects of cultural significance and critical metaphors of contemporary consumerism. By crafting a work of art enmeshed with the concrete object, Jungen has forged two separate commodities into a single, synthesized object with a unique symbolism of its own.

The practice of altering the significance of an object from its expected context is termed bricolage. In The Savage Mind (1962), the French theorist, Claude Levi-Strauss, describes the bricoleur as one who, in using the remains of events or signs apparently fixed in their power of reference, reconfigures and resignifies. The resulting configuration does not hold the same meaning as it did previously. Consisting of a new arrangement of elements, the original significance is irrevocably altered [1]. This paper applies Levi-Strauss’ concept to Brian Jungen as bricoleur for his series, Prototypes for a New Understanding. In the course of discussing the series, I deconstruct Jungen’s Nike Masks by exploring the meanings associated with each object separately. I follow this comparison with an interpretation of Northwest Coast Native culture and globalized consumer culture.

Brian Jungen (b. 1970) was born in Fort St. John, British Columbia, to a Swiss father and a Native mother. Shortly after graduating from the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design, he gained critical acclaim in the 1990’s for his artworks dealing with colonialism, globalization and commodification. As a result of his direct link to Native culture, the issues of identity, race, gender, culture and stereotyping are a source for many of his works [2]. In the 1990’s, he focused mainly on imagery linked to First Nations stereotypes. His show, Half Nelson (1997) in Calgary, featured paintings of drawings done by random individuals he approached on the street. As a personal ethnographic study, Jungen asked non-Natives to draw the likeness of a Native person (Fig. 1). This was followed by Shapeshifter (2000) (Fig. 2), a sculpture made of plastic chairs to form the shape of a whale’s skeleton. The piece served as a commentary on Native traditional whaling practices and global commodities. Jungen would repeat the same materials combined with fabric in Bush Capsule (2000), a small dome-like structure resembling an igloo/tent. Described by the artist as a “seasonal shelter,” Bush Capsule referenced the concerns of Native land claims. Globalization and the identity of First Nations individuals were fused as the focal point for his work in his subsequent series, Prototypes for a New Understanding. The artist’s concerns reveal themselves through the manner in which he crafted his masks over a five year period.

As noted earlier, Nike Masks replicate the traditional ceremonial masks of the Northwest Coast First Nations cultures. The colour scheme of Nike Masks repeats the same colour scheme of red, white and black that is characteristic of Nike Air Jordan sneakers and traditional Northwest Coast Native culture (Fig. 4) [3]. The fabrication of the masks involved the literal disassembling of the shoes and their subsequent reassemblage, stitch by hand sewn stitch. To some of the Prototypes, Jungen applied hair. The final products bore an uncanny resemblance to carved and painted Northwest Coast Native masks. In the process of this transformation, Jungen maintained the signifiers of the Nike brand by integrating the company’s trademark swoosh into the facial features on the masks or as elements of their overall design. He exploited the curved lines of the sneakers’ various parts to replicate the curvaceous stylistic aspects of Pacific Coast Art. He also included the sneakers’ “Made in …” tags by placing them on the reverse side of the masks. The final creations were placed in glass vitrines that Jungen made especially for his newly formed objects.

Levi-Strauss’ writings on the concept of bricolage have alluded to the idea that “signs resembl[ing] images [are] concrete entities but they resemble concepts in their power of reference” [4]. The signs and images that hold a “power of reference” are what both Marita Sturken and Dick Hebdige have referred to in their writings onbricolage as “commodities” or “cultural objects” [5]. With the rapid development of globalized markets, contemporary Western (and non-Western) culture has emerged as a commodity culture, where images and trademarks form an inextricable part of the social praxis. In turn, people’s identities are constructed through capitalistic goods and corporations [6]. In the case of Prototypes, Jungen’s signs or images are Nike shoes. In their original sense, they are a commodity. As for the concept of Northwest Coast Native masks, their original purpose is based on ritual. Yet through the evolution of both objects, that is, in terms of their commodification and globalization, they have crossed over the boundaries of definition and now share similarities as a joint commodity and cultural object. I will now discuss each category separately, looking first at their places of origin and, subsequently, how they have each evolved to their current state.

The Nike shoe business started in the 1960’s by Philip Knight, a student attending Stanford University. The germ for the company was kick started by Knight’s desire to start a business importing shoes from Japan [7]. His business grew over the years to produce a variety of running shoes, from tennis to basketball, as well as a line of athletic wear catering to men and women. The Nike Company is currently one of the “largest, most popular, and most profitable shoe and clothing companies in the world” [8]. Nike shoes and clothing are now a globalized commodity, much like Coka-Cola Classic.

As a result of the globalization and popularity of the Nike brand, the company’s logo can be spotted in virtually every athletic retail store. Its ubiquitous advertising campaigns appear on television, in magazines, through sponsored events, and on the World Wide Web. Of course, there is also the global population at large who, in wearing Nike goods, serve the company as paying advertisers. The ever growing commodity value of Nike and its signature “swoosh” has led to its status as an icon of contemporary culture. As the company’s products have grown in popularity, Nike has not only become embedded with a multitude of associations but has been appropriated as a means of expressing identity by both celebrities and subcultures alike.

Nike campaigns typically feature sports and entertainment celebrities (i.e., Michael Jordan, Andre Agassi and Spike Lee, to name a few) who are paid to wear the company’s products. Not only are these celebrities used to sell Nike, but they also sell a lifestyle and the glory associated with being a star. For subcultures, the consumption of Nike products becomes a means to personally associate themselves with a desired lifestyle and, identity modeled in the accoutrements of a hip, urban youth culture [9].

Bob Herbert’s article, “What a Denial Nike Is – of Sweatshop Economics,” (1996) discusses how Nike functions on a “pyramid of exploitation.” Where the Nike celebrities and Philip Knight are perched at the top of the pyramid scheme, consumers of Nike and the workers in Nike’s factories, sit at the bottom [10]. In the 1990’s, Nike’s decision to sub-contract the production of its shoes to companies in Asia resulted in the regular mistreatment of workers. The subsequent publicizing of Nike’s lamentable labour practices enraged workers’ rights activists across the world. Since the Nike company works on a sub-contract level, Nike cannot be linked directly to the mistreatment of its sweatshop workers.

To give a sense of the disparity in company profits versus factory wages, workers in Vietnam earn thirty dollars a month while Knight’s salary is approximately $800,000 a year. Celebrity icons are paid up to twenty million dollars a year to advertise Nike’s products [11]. This is why Herbert refers to Nike as operating a “pyramid of exploitation.” Like its workers, the company’s consumers are equally exploited. While the consumers of the company’s products spend well over a hundred dollars for every pair of Nike shoes, the company’s factory workers receive one to two dollars for a full day of labour.

When referring to the Northwest Coast First Nations, one thinks of the Native populations of the Pacific Coast who span from the Northwestern United Sates through the Coast of British Columbia to the Alaskan Coast. Before colonization in the 1800’s, this area was the homeland of over thirty-two language groups who lived off the land. Using their natural resources, they created a number of cultural, stylistically designed, functional-objects. Most commonly, these objects were made of wood. The artistic depictions on them were reflective of symbols of family histories and mythological representations [12]. Some examples of these highly functional objects in the social life of Native peoples were decorated house posts, feasting dishes, memorial and storage boxes, ceremonial costumes, masks, drums, and rattles.

The ceremonial mask plays an important role in North West Coast feasting ceremonies and dances such as the potlatch (a potlatch feast was linked to family status; it acted as a reinforcement of roles in terms of status and hierarchy within a society) and memorial ceremonies. The masks vary in size from small head plates to large, elaborate masks that open up to reveal another face. Each culture has its own family stories and mythological beings. The faces of the masks also vary, from supernatural beings and animal spirits to human faces. The depiction of these beings was used as one part of the costume to recreate the stories of clan legends or to depict particular events [13]. Most often, the masks were carved from wood and then painted with colours most commonly associated with North West Coast art.

At the time of colonization, a significant change occurred for Northwest Coast cultures as the domineering power of the colonies and missionaries stifled much of the indigenous cultural practices. This influenced a great deal of change in many aspects of First Nations peoples’ lives. At this time, some of their functional art objects were traded or seized for their colonizer’s personal collections or as objects to be placed in museums of anthropology or ethnography in European and North American cities [14]. It was not until the 1930’s when the meaning of these culturally significant pieces changed from historical artifacts to contemporaneous works of art [15].

Throughout the years, some Native individuals completely assimilated themselves into Western society, while others, though influenced by Western ways of life, still maintained ties to their culture. In the past couple of decades there has been a lot of political activity among the First Nations of B.C. in the form of reclaiming land and reestablishing their cultural identity. The arts produced by the First Nations individuals shifted over the years from functional cultural objects to prints and sculptures catering to the growing number of interested collectors [16]. The arts of the First Nations, throughout the latter half of the twentieth century have become commodities. In Vancouver alone, there are numerous galleries specializing in the sale of Northwest Coast Native art to eager tourists and seasoned collectors. The fame associated with artists like Bill Reid and Susan Point has contributed to the increasing demand for First Nations prints and masks as commodity items. Moreover, consumers of First Nations art come from all over the world, not just Canada.

On a provincial level, Northwest Coast Native art has come to be a contemporary emblem of British Columbia [17]. Evidence of this can be seen in the Vancouver Airport. Throughout its hallways and corridors, numerous prints, carvings, totem poles and sculptures produced by First Nation’s artists are on display. The largest sculptures in the airport’s collection are by Reid, the most acclaimed Northwest Coast Native artist. The growth in demand for Coastal artworks proves that the significance of these objects has shifted in meaning. No longer objects of cultural significance to a specific community, they are now widely produced objects of commodified disassociation.

Prototypes for a New Understanding offers a critique of Nike brand sneakers as appropriated commodities placed “in a symbolic ensemble that serves to […] subvert their original straight meanings” [18]. Inciting numerous references to contemporary culture, commodities, mass production, globalization, identity and social hierarchy,Prototypes encompasses a new meaning as an integrated object. Meshing the idea of a traditional object with that of a contemporary commodity, Jungen evokes thoughts, tensions, contradictions and political awareness by embracing change and a hybridized society as a cultural fact.

The image of the traditional ceremonial mask is bound to the symbol of Nike sneakers, placing it within the image of the global commodity. Jungen’s work is suggestive of mass production on a global scale, whereby products are produced on the base level by hand and distributed worldwide. It suggests a new way of looking at the commodification and marketing of specific cultural objects and practices [19].  Jungen’s Prototypes series entreats us to think about Nike’s sweatshop workers whose labour continues to be exploited in the interests of corporate wealth. In the case of the Northwest Coast peoples, however, it is their culture and rights as Natives that are not being addressed on a base level. In the meantime, their culture continues to be exploited in the name of provincial identity as well as on the level of commercialization by art galleries [20]. Moreover, the exploitation of the First Nations peoples’ identities as individuals continues to be obscured by the tourist industry and the sale of miniaturized totem poles, kitsch dolls that simulate what a “Native” person looks like, and other mass produced, pseudo-“Indian” paraphernalia.

Jungen’s Prototypes evoke the idea that what once was traditional culture has been influenced throughout by Western society and the culture of commodification defining the Western world. By using the material of mass-produced, popular goods to make “new” Native masks, Jungen’s Nike Masks explore the idea that commodification has had a direct impact on the changes and evolution of Native identity and culture [21]. Jungen suggests that many contemporary urban Native peoples spend a vast amount of time situating themselves within an “Indian spectrum,” which is “defined by an inherited economy of imagery and iconography” [22]. The Nike Masksallude to the consumer commodities impressed upon Native urban youth, a target market for Nike. It is a common trend among the youth population today to emulate cultural heroes and adapt capitalist iconography as a means of self-definition.

Both the image of the cultural mask and Nike shoes can be linked to the idea of ritual or ceremony [23]. As previously mentioned, the First Nation’s ceremonial masks were used for dances or storytelling, which often took place when the community gathered together for feasts. In the case of Prototypes, there is also a link to the ritual of the basketball game, where numerous people gather as spectators to a sporting event. Both of these rituals, though different in kind, can be equated by their significance as cultural events.

Jungen contends that his Prototypes are not a call for the revival of tradition but a call to recognize their origins [24]. It is the origin of where the shoes are made that he chooses to display to the viewers. Leaving the “made in—” tags on the reverse side of the masks, Jungen explicitly refers the viewer to the masks’ hybrid origins. The tags point to where the shoes were made (a sweatshop factory in Asia), and thus creates a link to Nike’s behind-the-scenes labour practices and its employment of sweatshop workers.

Serving as a contrast to the associations this work has with contemporary Native culture and contemporary commodity culture, Nike Masks is infused with a connection to its origins by way of colour, style and general appearance. Jungen replicated a traditional ceremonial mask to conjure thoughts of traditional Native culture as well as changes within contemporary Native communities. With these works, Jungen makes a compelling statement about Native society today and the effects of acculturation affecting both Native and non-Native communities.

Jungen’s Prototypes for a New Understanding series were placed into glass vitrines, recalling the same display method appearing in an anthropological or art museum. Jungen has always had an interest in how museums exhibit First Nations objects as ethnographic goods [25]. He has suggested that he “wanted the Prototypes to have the same institutional ‘authenticity'” as a museum [26]. Having the glass vitrines gave Jungen the power to exhibit the masks in the manner he chose to present them. This is especially important in terms of Jungen’s placement of the masks’ fabrication tags. This is to say, their hybrid origins defy traditional anthropological and art historical labels.

Simulating anthropology museums by placing Prototypes for a New Understanding in glass casings, Brian Jungen presents us with a new work for ethnographic study. His work fuses cultures, calling into question the dominant, Western capitalized world and the influences it has both imposed upon, and been appropriated by, Native tradition and identity. This project also references the hierarchy of a capitalist world in terms of vertical positions of power and the individuals who are exploited for the purpose of monetary growth in a capitalist economy. Prototypes is a study of origins through the simulation of style and form to past traditions of Northwest Coast Native arts, as well as a study that provides the viewer with references to the manufacturing origins of Nike shoes. Through its references to culture, identity and the effects of globalized commodities, Jungen’s“bricolaged” masks provide the viewer with the artist’s shared perception of the contemporary world in relation to Northwest Coast traditions.

Endnotes

1. Claude Levi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962), 20-22.

2. Nancy Tousley, “Jungen: Brian Jungen Is a Fast-Rising Star in a New Generation of Canadian Artists,” The Calgary Herald (Dec. 1, 2001): ES 09.

3. Brian Jungen, “The Materials and Objects are Familiar,” Cybermuse, hosted by the National Gallery of Canada < http://cybermuse.gallery.ca/cybermuse/search/artist_e.jsp?iartistid=25208>.

4. Levi-Strauss, 18.

5. Dick, Hebdige, The Meaning of Style (London: Routledge, 1979), 102-106.

6. Marita Sturken et al., “Consumer Culture and the Manufacture of Desire,” Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture (Cambridge: Oxford University Press, 2001), 227-229.

7. Jennifer Lin, “Running Down Nike,” Knight Rider Newspapers (April 12,1988): F1, FRO.

8. The Global Exchange, 2003< www.globalexchange.org/campaigns/sweatshops/nike>.

9. Sturken: 229.

10. Bob Herbert, “What a Denial Nike is – of Sweatshop Economics,” The Vancouver Sun (June 11,1996): A15.

11. Herbert: A15.

12. Northwest Connection Gallery of Native Art, 2002 < www.northwest-connection.com/Pages/nations.htm>.

13. Northwest Connection Gallery of Native Art, 2002.

14. Mary Jane Lenz, “Art from the Northwest Coast,” The Magazine Antiques 156 (Oct. 1994): 476.

15. Lenz: 476.

16. Lenz: 476.

17. Nancy Tousley, “Jungen: Brian Jungen Is a Fast-Rising Star in a New Generation of Canadian Artists,” The Calgary Herald (Dec. 1,2001): 6.

18. Hebdige, 104.

19. Brian Jungen, “Prototypes for a New Understanding,” Flash Art 36.231 (July-Sept. 2003): 86.

20. < http://cybermuse.gallery.ca/cybermuse/search/artist_e.jsp?iartistid=25208>.

21. David Garneau, “Visual Art: Beyond the One-Liner: the Masks of Brian Jungen,” Border Crossings19.4 (Nov. 2000): 92.

22. Garneau: 92.

23. <http://cybermuse.gallery.ca/cybermuse/search/artist_e.jsp?iartistid=25208>.

24. Garneau: 92.

25. Nancy Tousley, “Jungen: Brian Jungen Is a Fast-Rising Star in a New Generation of Canadian Artists,” The Calgary Herald (Dec. 1,2001): 7.

26. Jungen, “Prototypes for a New Understanding”: 86.