“The didactic becomes important”: Sonny Assu with Kyra Kordoski
Sonny Assu’s 15-year-long career has been underscored by a conscious engagement with family and national history. He addresses his subjects with unflinchingly critical political observation, as well as a whimsical and inviting sense of humor. Assu’s recent exhibition at Vancouver’s Equinox Gallery, “Day School,” featured works representative of his multifaceted oeuvre, and its timing held an acute significance. It coincided with the 25th Anniversary of the Oka Crisis, an intense, three-month-long land dispute between Mohawk peoples and the Quebecois city of Oka. And “Day School” opened just as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) — a body set up to address the lasting effects of the nation’s Indian Residential School system that operated from the 1800s to 1996 — released their convening report. With such auspicious timing, the exhibition became a particularly powerful nexus, bringing into sharp focus relationships between art, politics, and structural racism, while helping to erase perceived divisions between historical circumstances and current experiences.
KYRA KORDOSKI: The exhibition is called “Day School” — what was the impetus for that title?
SONNY ASSU: The title is a reference to one of the sculptures, Leila’s Desk (2013), a piece that speaks of my grandmother’s first day of high school. The work itself is a reclaimed 1930s school desk with a vintage bar of soap on top. I refinished the wood and copper-leafed its metal parts. My use of copper is a material allusion: the Kwakwaka’wakw and other Pacific Northwest Coast peoples see copper as a signifier of wealth. Before she went to a standard high school, my grandmother, Leila, went to an Indian Day School, which was similar to the Residential School system except the children were permitted to return home to their families at the end of the day. On her first day in grade nine, a boy left a bar of soap on her desk and called her a dirty Indian. I thought it was important to make this piece not only because it was a story she kept telling me, but also so that people understand that racism is ingrained within our seemingly tolerant society.
The other desk piece, Inherent (2013), is about my first experience with racism, coincidentally also in grade nine, in the early 1990s. During the Oka crisis in Quebec, a boy in my class was talking about how these “dirty, dumb, drunk Indians” just wanted everything for nothing. I stood up to him and his response was to call me “chug,” which is a racial slur for First Nations people. With that piece, I copper-leafed the underside of the flip top of this classic ‘70s desk with the sea-foam-green bottom, and “chug” is written there in a soft, graffiti-like script. The exhibition wasn’t planned around this timing, but this year happens to be the 25th anniversary of the Oka crisis.
It’s also just coincidental that the exhibition falls on the heels of the TRC releasing their convening report. How do you think pieces like these are activated at pivotal historical moments to which they are thematically tied? How would you describe their social function beyond the often-hermetic art world?
They become very pointed when we have the TRC report naming the effects of colonialism a “cultural genocide.” (To me, though, it’s just genocide. There is no “cultural” about it.) I want people to understand that there is a human face behind these issues, and I think the physicality of pieces like these can invoke empathy that might be missing from the language of a governmental document. They’re an important conversation starter, which is why I feel it’s important to have information available when these pieces are exhibited. There seems to be a backlash against didactics these days, but you have to take into consideration that there are narrative elements behind many of my works, and so the use of a didactic becomes important. It’s not your standard art-babble wall text; I’m giving people an “in” to the story behind these pieces in hopes that it compels the viewer to dig into the deeper issues.
Not all of the pieces in the show are as explicitly historical as Leila’s Desk and Inherent; there are many contemporary pop culture elements. How do you tend to go about connecting past and present, the pop and the personal?
I grew up in what I see as the pinnacle of our contemporary pop-culture: the early ‘80s. The influence of pop media, advertising, comic books, cartoons, sugary breakfast cereals, all lead into explorations of consumerism, branding and marketing with the works I did over a decade ago when I was coming out of my BFA at the Emily Carr University. That still has hooks in the conversations I create now, but it has flowed over to how we use social media as a form of totemic representation. With the Chilkat painting series, for example, I wanted to talk about how we communicate status in our social-media driven society, versus that of a traditional potlatch society. In 2010, I got to try on the regalia of my great-great-grandfather, Chief Billy Assu: a five-pointed Chilkat blanket that’s at the Civilization Museum in Gatineau, Quebec. As soon as it hit my shoulders a wealth of energy flew through me like an electric shock. I felt the history that was engrained into this object; I felt the status that my great-great-grandfather had. He’s an inspiration to me and he was highly regarded as a progressive leader and was recognized for his actions as a Chief. Since, in contrast, today we use platforms like Twitter and Facebook to talk about how important our breakfast was, most of the titles in the Chlikat series have hashtags. Status (2015) is a copper spray-painted pentagonal panel with abstracted forms that, to me, are reminiscent of the graffiti culture that indigenous youth have embraced as a way to communicate their status.
And certain works, such as your Longhouse paintings, seem to reside even more in abstraction?
If you look at the art from Northwest Coast, referred to as Formline, it’s very formulaic and narrative based. A good example of this would be totem poles: if you’re standing in front of one of these majestic markers, and if you happen to know those stories behind the iconography, you can formulate the narrative. With the Longhouse series, I wanted use the stylization of the Northwest Coast, but remove that traditional narrative and start thinking of Formline as pure abstraction. I was thinking about how the Cubists and Surrealists were inspired by indigenous cultures from all over the word, and in particular, how the Surrealists were influenced by the Kwakwaka’wakw. In essence I’m witnessing how they used their observations to inform their works, and I’m making work in response to their observations. It becomes this very circular, reflections-based view of art and art history.
The (b) Longing series touches on a fascinating intersection of art objects and ceremonial objects, found and discarded objects, and their relationship to particular spaces.
(b) Longing is an offshoot of my Longing series. I was going through piles of discarded wood from a log-home building site on my reserve on Vancouver Island, looking for cedar bark for my mom to use. I found these off-cuts that had been formed from the log joinery. Given that cedar is such a spiritual and culturally significant material for many Northwest Coast peoples, I found it compelling that they had been discarded. Essentially, through colonialism and luxury-consumerism, these cedar objects had become waste products. But by mounting them to museum quality standards and by being very cognizant of how to position the heads to capture the light, they’ve become anthropomorphized and invoke emotion. I’ve mounted 31 of these “masks” to museum quality standards. A photographic sub-series, Artifacts of Authenticity, documents them as in-situ interventions in places that I feel have exerted authority upon the First People, particularly on the Northwest Coast: anthropology institutions, commercial Northwest Coast art galleries, and tourist shops. As another sub-series, (b) Longing consists of cast bronze versions of some of these masks, which adds another layer of preservation to them.
Gone Copper! is another series of that address specific, traumatic events, but it does so with a definite lightness. What’s the value of playfulness in approaching history?
The pieces are meant to look like framed gold records, but they’re made out of copper and mounted on maple. It’s a new sculptural sub-series inspired by recordings of Chief Billy Assu. He was recorded in the mid 1940s at the height of the potlatch ban, which lasted from 1884 to 1951. Under the ban, it was illegal for the First People to practice their cultural and spiritual beliefs. Getting caught could mean a fine, being tossed in jail, and having your regalia confiscated. I found it interesting that that my great-great-grandfather was allowed to sing these songs for the sake of an ethnologist, but he wasn’t permitted to sing his songs out of his own free will. Billy and The Chiefs is a fictional band I conceived of, touring the country; their aspirations would not be to go gold or platinum, but to go copper. The fictional albums these awards represent have very political but also humorous names: Live From the ‘Latch; Busted; Giving It All Away; Colonial Eyes…
The title “Day School“ has a darkness to it, too, but with this exhibition I felt it was important to highlight two aspects that have always worked hand-in-hand in my practice: whimsy and darkness. I embrace humor as a way to bring people into more difficult conversations. A lot of people assume everything that happened around First Nations people in Canada took place 500 years ago. Sure, we can trace issues attributed to colonization back that far and pin them to those distant things to make us feel better about our ugly history. But I can trace these issues back just a few decades, to my grandparents’ or mother’s generation. The last residential school closed in 1996, two years after I graduated from high school. That’s my generation. I’m illuminating a very recent history in my work. I want people to understand that there is a hidden, parallel history in Canada that we refuse to acknowledge. I think that’s an important part of a lot of my work: invoking empathy, prevailing upon Canadians to live up our stereotype as a kind, gentle, compassionate country, because I would argue that compassion is currently lacking in terms of how First Nations people are treated in Canada.