An Interview with Sonny Assu
Sonny Assu, What a Great spot for a Walmart! (2014), digital intervention on an Emily Carr Painting, 57.2 x 84.5 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and the Equinox Gallery
Sonny Assu’s paintings, sculptures, prints, installations, and interventions are imbued with a wry humour which he says opens the “conversation” into exploring consumerism, colonization and imperialism.
Born in Richmond, B.C. in 1975, Assu is Ligwilda’xw (Kwakwaka’wakw) of the We Wai Kai Nation of British Columbia, and is a direct descendant of We Wai Kai Hereditary Chief, Billy Assu (1867–1965). After accidentally learning about his Indigenous ancestry in elementary school, Assu was driven to explore his heritage. As an adult he began creating witty, insightful art that is layered with the political, ideological and cultural discussions which he says continue to permeate First Nations issues.
Assu graduated from Emily Carr University of Art + Design in 2002, and received the distinguished Emily Award in 2007. He received the British Columbia Creative Achievement Award for First Nations’ Art in 2011, and was longlisted for the prestigious Sobey Art Award in 2012, 2013 and 2015. His work can be found in the permanent collections of a number of international museums and galleries, including the National Gallery of Canada, the Seattle Art Museum, the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, and other public and private collections across Canada and the United States.
This summer, Assu will be featured in two solo exhibitions. Continuum runs from June 12 to September 6 at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery, and Day School will be on view at the Equinox Art Gallery in Vancouver from June 13 to July 11.
Sonny Assu recently spoke with NGC Magazine about his ancestry, his art, and his thoughts on being labelled a First Nations artist.
Sonny Assu, Silenced: The Burning (2011), acrylic on Elk-hide drums,16”–24” diameter, installation of 67. Image courtesy of the artist and the Equinox Gallery. Photo: Scott Massey, Site Photography
NGC Magazine: You only learned about your First Nations ancestry when you were eight years old, and it sounds like it was both a shock and an epiphany. Can you describe how that happened?
Sonny Assu: I was just learning about myself. It was in Grade 3, and the teacher was giving a lesson on the Kwakwaka’wakw people. I was really drawn to the lesson and to the art. The teacher was talking about the art that the people used to make, the food they ate, where they lived; but he was talking about them in the past tense. I got really excited about these people, and ran home to tell my mom about the lesson. I told her, “This is where they used to live, and this is where we spent our summers. This is the food they used to eat, and this is the food we eat now. The art they create is the same art my (then) stepfather makes as a carver." She just looked at me and said, “That's who you are.”
NGCM: How did that revelation shape your desire to become an artist?
SA: Around the time I was finishing up my bachelor's degree at Emily Carr, I was trying to find a way to differentiate myself from the crowd. I used my personal narrative of eight-year-old Sonny discovering his heritage, and combined it with that particular moment in 1980s pop culture to create something uniquely my own. I used it to formalize a conversation, and to present a unique twist on my identity as an Indigenous person. When I was a kid, I didn't really understand what it was to be an Indigenous person. I was just living my life as an average kid, loved by his family, growing up in the suburbs.
NGCM: How does that ancestry continue to shape your art now?
SA: Learning about my family history has been an ongoing process since I was in my early 20s. I’m continually learning something new about my family, and I think my family, culture and ancestry will continue to shape my work for a long time. My work started off very autobiographical. But as I’ve learned more about my family history, I’ve started to use particular people from my past to inform newer works. I’ve used stories of my great-great-grandfather, Chief Billy Assu, in a number of my works. And one of the pieces that will be featured in my exhibition at the Equinox Gallery will tell the story of my grandmother’s first day of high school.
Sonny Assu, Leila’s Desk (2013), 1930s school desk (wood, cast iron), copper Leaf, vintage Life Buoy Soap, 83.9 x 55.9 x 66 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and the Equinox Gallery. Photo: Kate Tarini, Ryerson Image Centre
NGCM: What is First Nations art to you?
SA: It’s art, pure and simple. While I embrace my Ligwilda’xw/Kwakwaka’wakw heritage and I identify as an Indigenous person, I don’t consider myself a “First Nations” artist, or an “Indigenous” artist or a “Kwakwaka’wakw” artist. I am an artist who happens to be Indigenous. I believe embracing these labels places an assumption on what my art will be, or how it will be seen. So for me, First Nations art is everything and anything — it could be a mask, a totem pole; it could be a modern painting, an installation, a performance, or other work that doesn’t conform to what we assume art or First Nations art to be. I want people to understand that there is a depth to all forms of art, and a depth to Indigenous people who are artists.
NGCM: You have a pretty cheeky take on colonialism, Western civilization, oppression. What are you trying to express? What is your message?
SA: I just want people around the world to understand that there are ongoing issues in Canada — problems that need to be rectified and understood — issues that challenge what it is to be a “Canadian” and how we, as Canadians, will be viewed on the world stage. When I’ve approached my work from that place of humour and cheekiness, it’s been done as a way to welcome people into the conversation around colonialism, and have them understand that Indigenous issues are ongoing.
NGCM: You also seem to have a keen eye for the absurd. What are some of the things in modern society that you find absurd, and which of these end up in your art?
SA: I guess I take a look at technology such as the iPod and the iPhone in my work. These were touted as devices that were going to unify the world, in this kind of harmonious, technology-inspired utopian bubble. In the decade that these iDevices have been around, however, we’ve seen that the bubble instead becomes very insular. We plug in our white earbuds, and we focus on our screens, shutting out the world around us. Personal connection and communication have been reduced to cat-memes and emoticons. And I can’t say that I’m immune to it; I was very quick to adopt social media platforms like Facebook. What I find absurd is how strong that marketing and social-media interaction has become. I comment on it, through my work, as a way of drawing connections to how we are influenced by it, and how we should try and look up from it now and again.
Sonny Assu, Status (2015), coppery spray paint, acrylic on panel, 101.7 x 213.4 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and the Equinox Gallery
SA: It was pretty amazing. I’ve been fortunate to have met a lot of Indigenous artists in Canada and the United States, but being able to meet Indigenous artists from all over the world was pretty cool. What I found interesting was the commonalities in colonial history. It’s important, because it shows that we’re not alone in this colonial construct, and gives us insight and hope to start conversations.
NGCM: Can you tell us about your sculpture 1884–1951, which was on view in that show?
SA: That was a piece from 2009, and it conceptualized a few different things. The main focus was the potlatch ban, which lasted from 1884 to 1951. For me, this work placed Indigenous issues in the contemporary sphere. More often than not, people assume that all the issues around the First Peoples happened 500 years ago, that it’s ancient history. The potlatch ban was a law that affected everyone from my great-great-grandparents to my grandparents — three generations of my family, forbidden to practice their culture. To be caught meant jail time and confiscation of potlatch goods and ceremonial regalia.
The installation features 67 copper, grande-sized coffee cups in a discard pile, not only bringing to light the ban itself, but also comparing the wealth structure of two distinct societies: our consumerist Western society vs. a potlatch society. The Western wealth construct involves hoarding and displaying wealth, whereas a Chief in a potlatch society would keep wealth only to give it all away. The more you give away, during a potlatch, the wealthier you are. And that wealth was demonstrated or shown conceptually through a Chief’s copper shields.
The grande-coffee cups also became important, because in our Western society we subconsciously display our wealth through the objects we purchase: iPods, cars, condos, and the ubiquitous to-go coffee culture. We walk into a place like Starbucks and we buy a latte for $5–8. We then stroll around town, subconsciously displaying our wealth for all to see. But when we’re finished with that liquid, the cup becomes worthless, and we toss it. This also mirrors how the Canadian government has continued to treated Indigenous people: as disposable.
NGCM: You also have works in the NGC’s permanent collection — for example, Status Update (2011). What does this pentagonal painting represent? What is it referencing?
SA: This is a piece that speaks to how we’ve embraced social media as a way to indicate our status in society. And it was one of the first works that was directly influenced by Chief Billy Assu. It’s part of my ongoing Chilkat series, and is based on his ceremonial Chilkat regalia. He got his regalia through a political marriage between the Martin family and the Assu family in the early 1900s.
These two important chiefs, Mungo Martin and Billy Assu, had come together in the early 1900s to have a potlatch to unify our culture. They brought the Assu and Martin families together to ensure that the Kwakwaka’wakw language, ceremonies and customs would continue and be passed down. At the time, there was a real threat that the language and culture would die out. This was at the height of the potlatch ban as well, so these two important families came together in defiance of colonial laws to make sure future generations would have access to language, customs, culture and art. Because Billy Assu was a highly regarded chief on the Northwest Coast, the Martin family gave him his Chilkat regalia to honour and recognize his status. Status was conferred upon him through his actions as a Chief and his placement within society.
This series aims to counter how we, as a modern pop culture, use social media influences to indicate our own status. Whereas Chief Assu could walk into a room and make his presence felt, we take to platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and talk about how important our breakfast was — which has no relevance to anyone but ourselves. I was able to briefly wear his Chilkat blanket. As soon as it touched my shoulders, I felt the weight of his status course through me like an electric shock. It brought me to tears. The title Status Update, as well as the three dots in the corner, reference the early days of Facebook; while the colour palette references the traditional colours of the Chilkat regalia.
Sonny Assu, The Value Of What Goes On Top (2015), copper leaf on maple plywood, installation size: 59.7 x 59.7 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and the Equinox Gallery
NGCM: Who has influenced your work, or continues to influence your work?
SA: My family and our history.
NGCM: What would you tell emerging artists?
SA: Keep making, creating and being inspired, and never stop challenging yourself. Make mistakes, and fail where you can. Succeed through your failures. Don’t draw a line between traditional and contemporary Indigenous art. They are two streams connecting to the same pond.
NGCM: What are you currently working on?
SA: This summer and into the fall, I’ll be working on a community engagement project, curated by France Trepanier, at the Open Space Gallery in Victoria, British Columbia. It’s called Awakening Memory, and I’m one of three artists involved in it. The other two are Marianne Nicolson and lessLIE. My focus will be community engagement with urban Indigenous people. The first iteration of the concept is on display at the Leonard and Bina Ellen Gallery in Montreal until September, as part of their SIGHTINGS project space. The work is called The Value of What Goes on Top, and plays with the concept that the display structure of art is the object that actually holds art’s value, rather than the art itself. I’m actually really excited about this project.