The Rise of Sneaker Culture


The true marker of fame today might be whether one has their own sneaker design. By this criteria, Kanye West, Barack Obama, Rihanna and Damien Hirst are among the celebrities of our time. Although sneakers are often viewed as mere consumer items, they also have important social, technological and aesthetic histories. A new exhibition at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, titled The Rise of Sneaker Culture,aims to trace these histories by understanding the sneaker as a wearable art medium.

Curated by Elizabeth Semmelhack, Senior Curator of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, The Rise of Sneaker Culture has already been exhibited across several American cities. With the aid of coordinating curator Robert Cook, the display has now made it to Australia. Tracing various facets of the sneaker evolution, the exhibition considers everything from the rudimentary beginnings of sneakers to the mechanics of gluing canvas to rubber. Glossing brands such as Nike, Puma, Adidas and Converse, Cook explains that the exhibition traces the scientific, aesthetic and cultural history of sneakers.

“The show uniquely takes us from the first prototypes of what a sneaker might be, through to the 1910s and 1920s when sneakers were being developed for indoor use and when Chuck Taylors come into their own,” says Cook.

“Then it goes through to the running boom of the 1970s and early 1980s, the allegiance to the new form of aerobics and then to the hip-hop culture and Air Jordans.”

Including rare sneakers and celebrity collaborations, the exhibition also includes designs by Sophia Chang, Tom Sachs, Damien Hirst, Prada, and Lanvin. By acknowledging the sneaker as an object of popular culture, the exhibition aims to widen the sphere of art to include the sneaker as both an object of social history and an artistic medium.  By placing sneakers within a gallery context, Cook hopes viewers will have a “material exploration of sneakers where you can start to read them as paintings.”

Alongside this understanding of sneakers, Cook also explains that the exhibition plays upon our personal resonances and memories. “Sneakers shape our lives in particular ways and we have relationships to sneakers in the same we do artworks,” says the curator. “We admire their creativity, the ways they shape how we operate in the world, how people identify us and how we identify ourselves.”

The Rise of Sneaker Culture
Art Gallery of Western Australia
13 May – 4 September

Preview Words by Tiarney Miekus