Sonny Assu meets you where you’re at. I first came across his artworks as the Idle No More movement began to swell, his dusty blue and red posters could be spotted in protests reading “rise” “lead” “confront” “learn”. Less than a month later, a set of posters on display at the Burnaby Art Gallery caught my attention, and it turned out they were also by Sonny.
Raised in Delta, Sonny first learned about his heritage when he ran home from school to tell his mother about these “cool people that used to exist” that he had learned about — only discover he was a descendant. He ties our western consumer culture to the indigenous past in a way that is simultaneously protest and invitation.
His piece “The Happiest Future” is currently still on display at the Burnaby Art Gallery.
Let’s start with you! Where are you from and how is it that you came to start making art works with a political bend to them?
Well, I’m originally from Vancouver… a grew up as a suburbanite (North Delta) who moved to the city to go to art school.
I think I’ve always had a strong political streak to me. For me, inserting politics into my work became second nature and a way to connect to various issues and to educate people on Canada’s hidden history.
My work started out, and to a point continues to be, very autobiographical. It started out as a way to mix my pop-culture upbringing with my learnt indigenous identity. I think the politics came to play a deeper meaning in my work as I started to uncover all the injustice that my family has faced through colonialism. The Potlatch Ban and the residential school history in my family became pretty sobering. I think the deep political nature of who I am was awakened as I discovered more about my family history.
Many of your pieces speak to the Canadian Indigenous experience – you say in your artist statement that you’re layering this with a look at consumerism, branding, etc. Why is it important for you to highlight these two realities in your work?
Consumerism is part of my identity, it’s a part of all Western peoples’ identity. We have been bred to be consumers, and we brand ourselves with the iconography that speaks to our loyalties to the specific products we buy. Those products create a narrative on how we use branding as “totemic” representation. This idea came from an observation I had on the bus one day. There were two people, sitting next to each other yet ignoring each other, both with their little white earbuds jammed in their ears. They had no relation to each other, but through technology, they were connected to a symbolic consumer based clan structure. Instead of being from the Raven, Bear, Eagle (etc) clan, we now belong to the Nike clan, the iPod clan, the Coke clan.
This is really what Apple wanted to do. They wanted to create harmony between people through their products. However, it ultimately failed because these two people weren’t sitting and sharing, they were transfixed in their own little bubbles, ignoring the world around them.
I get the impression that you have experienced the sadness that comes with the Indigenous community’s loss of language, cultural resources, and the effects of colonization – could you share with us an experience when you first began to realize the impacts of these losses on the indigenous community and perhaps how it influenced your artistic path?
I don’t know if sadness would be the way to explain it. An understanding of the profane loss of culture and identity. I guess I understand that through colonization and my own personal history, I’m missing something.
It’s recently that I’ve started to realize that loss. Recently, in a relative sense I suppose. As my personal story goes, I found out about my heritage at the age of eight. Ironically, I was learning about my people in school, I ran home to tell my mom about these cool people that used to exist, not knowing I was one of them!
I really didn’t start to explore my culture though art until I was in my early twenties. But I think when I entered into my early thirties is when I really started to understand what I had missed and how it began to influence my work and message politically.
I have an understanding of my culture, I know the issues at hand with the First People and colonization… but I don’t know my language. It’s with sadness that I understand why there are only three fluent speakers left in my community.
As for influencing my artistic path, I’m using it as a vehicle to put a human face on the issues of colonization. Most people are so far removed from those issues that they have no idea how to usher in any sort of stereotypical compassion that Canadians are known for. At first, I was using it humorously, drawing relations to sugary breakfast cereals and Saturday morning cartoons. Now, I’m starting to reference stories I’ve heard about my great-great grandfather (Billy and the Chiefs, Silenced: The Burning and Ellipsis). Two new sculptural/ installation works I have on the bubble reference my grandfather and grandmother. I want people to know this is current history. These aren’t issues lost in the ethos… these are issues that are on-going, with ramifications that can be clearly seen.
The Happiest Future is a series of posters that read “The Happiest Future for the Indian Race Is absorption into the General Population. This is the Policy of our Government.” Where
does this phrase come from? What’s the story behind these posters?
That is a quote from Duncan Campbell Scott, one of Canada’s most assimilative-minded public servants. He was the head of the Indian Affairs department from 1913‒1932 and his mandate was full assimilation of the Indigenous people.
This series is a way to explain the inherent ignorance, racism, and bigotry that some Canadians hold towards the First People. It purports that in some point in Canada’s colonial past, propaganda must have been used to spread the hate. I was taking cues from World War I and II and communist era propaganda imagery to inform this work.
I started to toy around with the idea a couple of years ago, and launched the series in the fall at Gallery Fukai in Vancouver. Months later, the Idle No More movement took hold and gave me a way to counter balance the negative aspects of what I was sharing. As I started to dive into the notion of propaganda, I began to see that it wasn’t just a one sided affair. The “good guys” and the “bad guys” both had messages to share. Idle No More gave me a way to tackle the issues from the side of the “good guys”, providing a balance to the issue of colonialism in Canada.
It’s funny, really… well, not really funny ha-ha, but seeing these words from the past, I can see our current government utilizing them. In a way, the series is aimed at pointing out the injustices in Canadian history, hopefully allowing people to understand the issues and really tugging at the utopian perception that Canadians have of themselves.
These pieces come in multiple colours, and I first saw them at the Burnaby Art Gallery – where else have they been seen?
The Happiest Future was first presented as a solo exhibit at Gallery Fukai in Vancouver. There are 10 different colours in The Happiest Future piece and another from that series called Selective History.
Selective History is based on another DCS quote, where he expressed his desire to remove the “Indian problem” from colonial society. I feel he believed his words to come from a good place, somewhat utopian in a twisted way. But he was pushing the stereotype, fully believing that these people, whom Canada had decimated, were really just lazy. That they could, in fact “stand alone”. What this poster conceptualizes is that there was/is no Indian problem, but it’s simply a selective history problem.
This sentiment is echoed in what our current PM has stated in his speech to the G8/G20 conference in 2009. He told the world that Canada had no history of colonialism… Imma let you sit on that one for a sec! ( NOTE: I did a piece called Chief Speaker, followed by 11 Nations, on my site under Projects/ Happiest Future)
So as much as my work is political, it is also educational. It’s filling in the gaps in the Canadian educational system. We aren’t taught about colonialism in school. We are taught about a people in the past tense. Who the “Indians” used to be, where they used to live and what their culture used to be.
How do these pieces tie into (if at all) the Idle No More movement?
There is another series of images you’ve done that are inspired by the HOPE poster of Obama, what did you first create these for?
The Happiest Future predated the movement by a few months, and like the Idle No More movement, the aim of the work is to educate.
I created “There Is Hope, If We Rise” to inspire action from not only the First People, but from all Canadians. The BAG commissioned me to make these posters, and they printed them to be used at rallies, demonstrations, teach-ins and round dances. All the imagery is the same, but the text reflects various phrases used within the movement. Along the bottom, with the text, are four ovoids that represent the four founding women of the movement.
TIHIWR was inspired by Shepard Fairey’s iconic Hope poster of Barak Obama, where he was utilizing the iconic form of propaganda aesthetics to inspire the American people to see hope in their system.
The media has done its best to swing this as an “Indian” thing, but it is the farthest thing from. The Idle No More movement started as a response to the government’s omnibus budget bill, which contained unilateral changes to the Indian Act. Not to mention sweeping environmental reforms. One of the biggest, for me, is the surrender of reserve lands and private ownership of reserve lands.
The changes to the act around the surrender of land is huge! All the government needs to do now is call a meeting with the Chief and whichever council member is available and ask them to vote on the surrender of lands. This can still be accomplished in the current Indian Act, but all members of the nation must vote. So what’s to stop the government from dangling a few carrots to get what they want? The ramifications are dire, especially when you look at a dirty oil pipe line shooting west from Alberta across un-ceeded, traditional territories.
There have been whispers of a “maple spring”, which could happen, but we as Canadians need to stop the apathy. We can no longer just sit back and say “fuck it, we’ll fix it in four years”. We don’t have four years… we don’t have two years. So, yes, there will be hope, if we rise!
Another series of yours is the (res) series, which reminds me of the red campaign for HIV/AIDS fundraising – what’s the story behind these pieces?
It came from my iDrum series, particularity the (Red)iscovery Series. That work, along with Product (RES), is looking specifically at our compassion consumption. As Canadians, as people of the privileged western world, we pride ourselves on being compassionate to those less fortunate than ourselves. But I’m seeing the hypocrisy in our generosity. Product (RED) was a consumer program that companies like the Gap, Starbucks and Apple jumped on. They preyed on our compassion, by offering pennies of our purchase towards helping those in need, far away from our privileged lives. The hypocrisy is pointed out in this series by questioning how we can have compassion for others, yet have none for our own people?
Frankly, western society will go out of its way to help people in need. Every time I talk about this, I’m reminded of a song called “21st Century Living” by Matthew Good. In part of the song, he talks about our ambition to help those in need. “Around here our ambition throws a non-perishable item in a donation bin at Christmas/ And it pats itself on the fucking back because it thinks it’s done something decent.”
We, as Canadians, are wholly ambitious to help those in need — except in our own back yards. We constantly ignore people in need in our own country. And over the past year, our neglect has been highlighted by the third world conditions in places like Attawapiskat. But we need to be wary of making a martyr out of one community. There are hundreds of indigenous communities in jeopardy all over Canada. Places that lack running water, places that lack the basic infrastructure and necessities that we all take for granted. If anything, we shouldn’t feel guilt over this. We should feel a deep desire to help! We need to question why we have people living in tar-paper shacks, shitting in buckets. Question why, in some remote northern communities, $20 worth of groceries costs $100.
All in all, I believe in the utopia of Canada. I believe that if given the proper education, the proper insight, Canadians will step up, acknowledge and respond.
What do you hope that people take away from viewing your pieces?
Compassion. And understanding. A drive to better themselves. At the very least an appreciation of the aesthetics I’m creating. I want to welcome people into a conversation, I don’t want to belittle anyone for the education they didn’t receive, I want to inspire them to better themselves and challenge how they fit within the stereotype of the Canadian identity.
What do you have coming up on the horizon in terms of shows, etc?
So much! I’m coming up on 1 year of marriage awesomeness with my partner in crime… followed by our daughter’s 1st birthday.
On top of that, I have two solo shows opening up in the beginning of March. One here in Montreal, #neveridle at Art Mur, and another called There Is Hope, If We Rise, at Vertigo Gallery in Vernon, BC. I’m part of Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art at the National Gallery of Canada this spring; an awesome public art work on the go in Vancouver; a solo at the Urban Shaman in Winnipeg; a group show in Toronto this fall and the continued touring of the Beat Nation exhibition.
Sonny will also be in Scope NYC 2013 opening March 6.