Cover Story: Indigenous artist Sonny Assu keeps it real—from the Vancouver Art Gallery to his home on Vancouver Island
We come to witness
Sonny Assu starts the conversation by recapping a "Star Trek: The Next Generation " episode.
The one about Dorvan V, for instance, leading to discourse on the forced migration of Indigenous communities in Canada.
Or he might comment on Starbucks, and then contrast it against the cultural devastation of the Canadian potlatch ban. Or he could make a wry hashtag reference—a fitting prelude to a discussion on the loss of Indigenous languages thanks to colonization.
Assu, a Ligwilda'xw Kwakwaka'wakw artist from the Wewaikai First Nation— and self-professed “super, jumbo nerd” for "Battlestar Galactica"—describes these conversations as passing on “modern oral traditions. These modern oral stories where people get to know the ramifications of colonization.”
And there are plenty of ramifications. It would be easy to point fingers. But Assu embraces the lighter, poppier side of difficult times, not merely to make geeky autobiographical references, but to encourage crucial cultural discussions.
“I do understand and appreciate—and fully embrace—the notion of the angry Indian,” he says. “We have every right to be angry: our land was taken from us; our culture was taken from us. We’re continually fighting against the government for our rights to our land base; our resources to better ourselves; to redevelop our language; to regain autonomy. I am angry. I do have anger in me around these issues.”
Passing the past
“[But] if I can approach someone with my issues—and maybe I could appeal to the inner nerd and talk about sci-fi for a minute—and then start bringing in these political and social conversations after that, that is informed by that conversation that I was having, let’s say, about the episode about Dorvan V [...] it’s going to help people understand it.
“It’s going to help people find an in.”
Assu will continue these dialogues at the Vancouver Art Gallery’s We Come to Witness: Sonny Assu in Dialogue with Emily Carr, a showcase of his work on display from Dec. 3 to April 23. The exhibit will feature Assu’s interventions on Carr’s paintings from his Interventions on the Imaginary print series: abstract ovoid and U-shapes rooted in the iconography of the Kwakwaka'wakw art style, digitally overlaid on Carr’s landscapes as graffiti-esque tags. They will be shown alongside Carr’s original pieces.
Carr’s paintings, Assu says, document the loss of culture, language, and land at the hands of early Canadian governments, and can help viewers formulate an understanding of Canada’s colonial structure and how the nation developed under this regime.
“It’s also a way to challenge it,” he adds. “That’s what I think is probably the most interesting part of this whole series: formulating those conversations with people who understand her work; who may not understand her work; or don’t have any understanding of how Canada came to be as a colonial state—and what steps can we take to, in essence, decolonize our mindset and decolonize this colonial state?”
“With [Interventions on the Imaginary] I’m saying that Indigenous people are still here, our struggles are still real, this land is still ours, and we’re going to do what we need to do to make that known and fight for it [. . .] With these digital interventions that I’m doing, it’s really placing our mark back on that territory.”
What a Nice Spot for a Walmart makes one of those statements, bringing into dialogue the complications of First Nations bands leasing land to corporations. The original Carr painting depicts the Campbell River Indian Band’s cemetery, near which Assu now lives in the house his grandmother built. The totem pole in the painting, he notes, is no longer there.
“We’re developing these large swaths of commercial properties to bring in infrastructure to support our people to try and get out of this colonial thumb that’s weighing down on us,” he remarks. “[But] what are we going to pave over? What are we going to cut down to provide this infrastructure?”
The genesis of Interventions on the Imaginary, Assu recalls, was finding a catalogue of Carr’s work at a used bookstore in Montreal in 2013. At the time, Assu, inspired by artist Wayne White’s superimpositions of text on landscapes, was collecting old paintings from thrift shops and antique stores around Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto.
As it happened, Assu’s first test intervention was not on Carr’s work, but that of another landscape painting icon: Bob Ross, PBS legend and Internet phenomenon.
“I really wanted to get back into exploring humor and having some fun and being playful with my work again,” Assu says. “And that’s where this series came out of as well [...] something fun, something playful.”
He then found the catalogue from Emily Carr: New Perspectives on a Canadian Icon, a touring exhibition jointly organized by the National Gallery of Canada and the Vancouver Art Gallery.
“The series was started as a response to my understanding at the time of Emily Carr’s work, influenced by Marcia Crosby’s essay Construction of the Imaginary Indian,” he says. “[I was] thinking about the misconceptions of Canada being this vast, open wilderness with very little to no inhabitants in it, and people witnessing Emily Carr’s works and thinking it was a documentation of this dying and vanishing race, and wondering how this misconception became commonplace.”
Assu further developed his perspective on Carr as he continued work on Interventions on the Imaginary, through conversations with Crosby, other historians, artists and his own examinations of Carr’s paintings. He is currently creating four to five new Carr interventions for We Come to Witness.
“I’ve come to understand that she wasn’t the figurehead of colonialism through art,” Assu says. “I think she was really conscious of the colonial onslaught and she was just documenting that life that she saw and the ramifications of that.”
In addition to including a selection of Assu’s sculptures and masks, We Come to Witness will also feature three new collaborative sculptures from Assu and ceramic artist Brendan Tang. These will be based on explorations of ceramics that Carr made and sold to earn money while she painted. Carr signed the ceramics with the moniker Klee Wyck to hide her ethnicity and identity, and abandoned the practice soon after seeing success as a painter.
In addition to parsing ideas of authenticity, identity, and cultural appropriation, Tang says, the works will explore the relationship between artist and place. One of the sculptures, for example, will be inspired by postcard holders that Carr made.
“The postcard is so much about place and identity and the promotion and development of that,” Tang says. “So much of Vancouver and British Columbia’s culture is so whitewashed and it’s promoted that way, and I think it’s definitely much more nuanced [...] Sonny and I are interested in teasing that apart and using the postcard as a way of intervening in them and using them as a space to talk about the other [e.g. First Nations, Chinese, Sikh] communities.”
Diana Freundl, Associate Curator of Asian Art at the Vancouver Art Gallery and curator of We Come to Witness, notes that such comparative cultural dialogues are not often explored.
“I think it’s very interesting because [Vancouver] is so rich with various diasporas,” she points out. “[But] we rarely talk about how some of these conversations are similar or different
Another piece will feature an oversized pin cushion—Tang says he and Assu are playing with ideas involving Hudson’s Bay blankets and Google Maps pins. Tang, who uses motifs from manga and plastic toys to remix traditional ceramic forms, says both he and Assu use pop culture as an invitation to conversation.
Behind the looking class
“I think with popular culture, there’s an allure to it,” Tang says. “There’s an immediate understanding—it becomes like a shorthand in a lot of ways for folks, and I think it makes the work easier, or more approachable.”
“They nerd out a lot, those two,” Freundle observes. “The people who were creating Star Wars and "Star Trek" [...] a lot of those people studied at art school, and a lot of those people come from that background, and it feeds itself back in. And then you’ve also got the mass culture that is interested in those programs and those shows—and it’s another way of finding connections that’s really important.”
“Contemporary art tends to make people feel distant because they don’t understand [...] You just have to find one way to let someone in, and it’s usually when you identify with something. Sometimes you don’t have to understand it—you just identify and it makes you feel something.”
Assu understands this dynamic well.
“If someone looks at a painting or buys a painting and they just appreciate it for its aesthetic qualities—to me, that’s okay,” Assu says. “But let’s say if I’m able to speak to that collector [...] ‘I’m happy that you’re going to enjoy it, that’s amazing ... but can I tell you the experience behind it?’”