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First Nation artist's farfetched animals stretch the imagination

March 25, 2010

First Nation artist's farfetched animals stretch the imagination

By Kara Briggs, American Indian News Service

NOTE: The National Museum of the American Indian is a Tanka retail partner and offers Tanka products in all of its gift shops and cafes.

Washington, D.C. -- Artist Brian Jungen's oversized animals have invaded the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian for the exhibition "Strange Comfort," which runs through Aug. 8, 2010.

An emu on roller skates and a two-tone crocodile -- both crafted from plastic luggage -- hang from a mobile in the Potomac Atrium. In the retrospective's gallery, a whale skeleton hangs resplendent under lights. Only upon closer inspection does it become clear that the whale's bones are cut from common plastic chairs.

Jungen, 40, of the Dunne-za First Nations in British Columbia, is called the best Native artist of his generation by Paul Chaat Smith, curator of "Strange Comfort." Jungen's work is usually shown by modern art galleries in cities such as New York, Montreal, Rotterdam and Munich. Never have his creations been made available, as they are now, to the zoo-going set.

The museum is visited by about 40,000 schoolchildren a year. On a recent Wednesday, about a dozen third-graders from Emmanuel Christian School in Springfield, Va., found themselves sitting on the gallery floor, surrounded by Jungen's "Carapace." The children didn't know the word carapace means exoskeleton or shell.

So the museum's lead cultural interpreter, Sharyl Pahe, who is San Carlos Apache and Navajo, asks the students to do a little deductive work.

"If we look at what is all around us," she asks, "what does it look like?"

Trash bins, the third-graders answer in unison.

"You'll see that this artist has taken something useful like a trash bin and cut it in two," Pahe says. "Is it still useful?"

No, the children almost sing.

"But what does this make you think of?"

A hut, a fort, a forest or bleachers, the third-graders offer.

"Could it be a turtle shell?" Pahe asks.

The children look with new eyes at the plastic shell.

"Why is this turtle shell so big?"

The children look quizzically at her. She explains, "To some tribes, the turtle represents the earth. The shell is important because it is like the land."

The children nod in understanding. They've visited this landscape of the imagination before, though perhaps not through the works of a Dunne-za artist who could be the age of their parents, but who, like them, lives in a society where white plastic chairs and green garbage cans can be the backdrop of imagination.

For more information: National Museum of the American Indian

Posted with permission from the National Museum of the American Indian.


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