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Features / October 30, 2014

Sugar and Grit: Sonny Assu Mixes Cultures

Shaped by his experience between Aboriginal and popular Western cultures, Sonny Assu's art reveals the truth of Canadian history, Tanya Harnett writes.

Sonny Assu focuses on the contrast of First Nations and Western European worldviews. His art is shaped by his experience within the interstices of Aboriginal and popular Western cultures. Assu is a Status Card–carrying Northwest Coast Indian and his perspectives are strongly informed by his family history and his identity. His work is crafted with humour, irony and a sardonic wit that flips contexts to reveal the absurd. To gain access to his work one simply needs its code, which is based on a true knowledge of Canadian history.

Assu has lived in Vancouver for most of his life. He graduated from Emily Carr University of Art and Design in 2002 and received the distinguished Emily Award in 2007. In 2011, he received the British Columbia Creative Achievement Award for First Nations’ Art and was longlisted for the Sobey Art Award in 2012 and 2013. He is Ligwilda’xw (Kwakwaka’wakw) of the We Wai Kai Nation. The original village of the We Wai Kai Nation is at Cape Mudge, which is located on the southern tip of Quadra Island, across from Campbell River on Vancouver Island. Assu is a descendant of the last hereditary chief of the We Wai Kai, Billy Assu (1867–1965).

In the first decades of the 20th century, Chief Assu, Assu’s great-great-grandfather, was acutely alert to the rapid encroachment of European peoples. He understood that this historical development was unlikely to wane. In the effort to retain and support the traditional ways of the Ligwilda’xw, he encouraged his people to invest in commercial fishing. Although many traditional ceremonies were banned with an amendment to the Indian Act in 1884, Chief Assu held a historically well-noted potlatch in 1911. The event included the gifting of 17 red-cedar canoes and prestigious copper shields that had the value of hundreds of Hudson’s Bay Company blankets. It is important to note that in potlatch ceremonies, honour is not garnered by a display of wealth; the highest respect is bestowed upon those who can give away the most.

Assu spent part of his formative years with his grandparents. At the age of seven, he moved to Vancouver, but in his childhood summers, he would return to Campbell River to spend time with his extended family, who were then, and still are, commercial fishers. Given his fair hair and light skin, Assu’s First Nations identity was, and is, not apparent to everyone. In grade three, his teacher once taught a class detailing the lost culture of the Kwakwaka’wakw tribes. She was unaware of Assu’s Indian status. Excited about what he had learned in class, Assu ran home as fast as he could to tell his mother about these lost people from the place he knew well. “They fished for salmon, just like we fish for salmon; they ate salmon, just like we eat salmon,” he said, “and they did wood carving, just like Jerry”—his former stepfather. Enthusiastically, he told his mother he wanted to be just like them. After giving pause, she said, “Well—that’s who you are.”

With this personal family lineage, and his close connection to his grandparents, Assu could not understand why he did not know more about his family’s not-so-distant history and traditions. Now, as an adult, Assu speculates that this might have been due to his grandparents’ hopes that he might slip by unnoticed as Indian and be spared the colonial racism that shadowed many generations of his family. There are many non-Aboriginal historical accounts and documents that are explicitly about indigenous peoples. These historical accounts are now recontextualized and absorbed by Native people, who are increasingly contributing to their own Aboriginal narrative, and in the process, amending the dominant colonial narrative. Assu’s artworks echo the pattern. Gaining entry to Assu’s narrative requires you to look at Canadian history from a First Nations perspective.

It could, for some, be a scary proposition. Assu asks his gallery audiences to engage and learn more about Aboriginal circumstances. With the Gradual Civilization Act in 1857, for instance, the Fifth Parliament of the Province of Canada enacted a policy of assimilation with an aim to dismantle the traditions and culture of Canada’s First Peoples. With the establishment of the Department of Indian Affairs in 1880, directives were dispatched to enforce this policy. In 1920, the deputy superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs, Duncan Campbell Scott, made the mandate perfectly clear with the announcement of Bill 14. As he famously stated: “Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department, that is the whole object of this Bill.”

In the wake of colonization, Western European peoples spilled into First Nations territories, and Canadian government policies left behind unthinkable destruction to tribes, families, languages and traditional cultures and ways of living that had thrived for thousands of years. Contact brought decimating diseases such as smallpox and tuberculosis, which devastated Native populations. The stories about smallpox-infested blankets being distributed are often acknowledged as fact among Aboriginal peoples. It has been documented that smallpox was used as a biological warfare tool to reduce the number of Indians at Fort Pitt during Pontiac’s Rebellion at the time of the Seven Years’ War. Assu’s own response to this history was made in the piece titled Death Blanket (2006), in which a four-point, four-colour, striped Hudson’s Bay Company blanket carries the image of a large skull made with shell buttons.

Assu’s personal past as a suburban-raised Aboriginal youth factors strongly in his art. He easily negotiates between Western and First Nations cultures. References to advertising, consumerism and consumption are where humour often makes an entrance in his work. He uses the hallmarks and marketing trappings of a candied pop culture as an artistic tool. Saturday-morning cartoons, comic books and corporate product marketing informed his mass-media sensibility. “I was literally spoon-fed on pop culture,” he says, remembering his childhood. In Breakfast Series (2006), he spoofed cereal boxes with slyly revisionist product labels like Bannock Pops, Salmon Crisp, Lucky Beads, Treaty Flakes and Salmon Loops. Assu lures viewers in with the reassurances of his parody products, but stuffs them with richer nutrients.

Coke-Salish (2006) satirizes pop culture and a mass-produced Coca-Cola advertisement. With the announcement of Vancouver’s hosting of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, Assu envisioned the craze the international event would bring to BC and how the event would overshadow the region’s cultural history of First Nations peoples as the traditional keepers of the land. Vancouver is built on Coast Salish territory and with Coke-Salish, Assu signalled that when visitors arrived in Vancouver, they would “Enjoy Coast-Salish Territory.” With the familiar red-and-white script of the Coca-Cola logo, Assu took his audience beyond the familiar first glance into a deeper history of place.

Likewise, the same approach was made with the unadorned spun-copper cups of Disposable Wealth (2009). The cups are modelled to trigger recognition of the Starbucks paper coffee cup. Assu sees the “five dollar cup of coffee” as a “Vancouverite status symbol.” In the work, he once again piggybacks historical information onto a corporate identity. In this case the reference point is the copper-based gift-giving wealth of the original Kwakwaka’wakw people, and the work was created to draw attention to this vastly different ideology concerning the distribution of wealth and social construction. In reiteration of the point, Assu also created the installation work 1884/1951 (2009). The piece presented 67 copper cups on a Hudson’s Bay Company blanket. Together, they represented every year that the potlatch ceremony had been banned in Canada. The piece conveys the absurdity of colonialism and has been exhibited widely—in 2013, it was included in “Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art” at the National Gallery of Canada.

The installation Longing (2011) at the West Vancouver Museum in turn displayed hewn, unadorned raw-cedar pieces, reading as masks mounted on slender plinths placed throughout the gallery space. Positioned at roughly shoulder height, they offered an uncanny feeling of atrophied lost souls. Assu had claimed and collected the pieces, which had been discarded by a commercial log home–building company, as an act of respect toward traditional materials now treated as cast-offs. Included in the same exhibition was the three-part photography series Artifacts of Authenticity (2011). It showed alternative potentials for a discarded material that holds high intrinsic spiritual and cultural value to the Northwest Coast people. The circumstances of display were ostensibly more respectable, showing them installed at Roberts Gallery and Gifts, Equinox Gallery and the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia—venues linked to both consumer culture and historical narrative. But whatever the setting, Assu’s readymade masks perform a Duchampian act, raising questions about intrinsic cultural value.

In the installation Ellipsis (2012), included in the recent nationally touring “Beat Nation” exhibition, copper again appears as a symbolically loaded material. The installation is large-scale, with 136 copper replicas of vinyl records mounted in varying vertical bars that drop from the top of the gallery wall. The copper LPs read like an inverted music equalizer, which turns tables or flips the question as to who, or what, is in control. The work makes reference to an event in 1947 when Chief Assu received the ethnomusicologist Ida Halpern and allowed her to record ceremonial and traditional music. The copper LPs honour Assu’s great-great-grandfather and give a spin on his family history. It was commonly perceived by non-Aboriginal people like Halpern at the time that they were recording and documenting a dying culture. The number of LPs this time counts the 136 years under which, at the time of the work’s creation, First Nations peoples had lived under the Indian Act.

Concurrent with the Department of Indian Affairs mandate was an initiative to send greater numbers of Indian children to residential schools. These schools began in the 1830s and continued in operation until 1996. It is a rare occasion to find a First Nations family not marred by this policy. With details varying depending on who is telling the story, it is estimated that 40 to 60 per cent of the children who attended the schools never made it back home. Assu’s family was no different: several members were forced into residential or Indian day schools. Leila’s Desk (2013), in particular, is a tribute to his grandmother’s experience.

As Assu explains, “My grandmother excelled at the Indian day school and, after graduating in grade eight, she was one of the first to be allowed to attend regular high school.” Excited about attending her first day at the school, Leila was shocked to be met with biting racism. Noting her attendance, someone had left a box of Lifebuoy soap on her desk. The meaning was unmistakable. It was an indication that she was “nothing more than a dirty little Indian.” The work recreates for its audiences Leila’s moment of entering the classroom and seeing her desk. We see a 1930s school desk, now reclaimed and adorned with copper leaf, but resting on top, in its original packaging, is a box of Lifebuoy soap.

In addition to making installation and sculptural works, Assu is also a prolific painter. As a medium, painting is a playground and a sketchbook for him. As in his other work, Assu traverses both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal worldviews. He can play outside the doctrinal lines of the traditional European canvas frame and to some extent the traditional Northwest Coast two-dimensional design. He takes liberty in stretching the notions of the “traditional”—not just metaphorically, but quite literally. In the Longhouse (2009–) and Chilkat (2010–) series, the painting stretcher is constructed to be in the same format as a traditional longhouse front or Chilkat robe. The imagery in his paintings consciously bends traditional Northwest Coast design conventions by using asymmetry, stretched ovoids and meandering formlines, and he also goes as far as to imply perspective and three-dimensionality.

These are radical acts of mixing. He incorporates a diverse and vibrant palette, cartooned lines and graffiti tactics, and also incorporates elements from hip hop, pop and other signifiers from mainstream culture. A significant amount of his work is painted on traditional drums. They also appear in series such as iDrums (2007–11), Disconnected and Reconnected (2009–), Silenced (2010–) and #selfie (2012–). For Assu, painting is a studio constant and much of his installation works echo in his paintings. The Silenced drum series gives metaphor to loss. Blame is directed at the Hudson’s Bay Company with the iconic colours and stripes and the obvious four-point markings that adorn the drums.

Those drums honour his lost ancestors and sound his family’s struggles. Surely making his grandmother proud, Assu uses his artwork to bite back at the deplorable history of colonialism.

This is an article from the Fall 2014 issue of Canadian Art. To read more from this issue, visit its table of contents. To read the entire issue, pick up a copy on newsstands or the App Store (where Assu has created a special artist project for our tablet edition) until December 14.