SONNY ASSU

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Sonny Assu, #IdleNoMore, 2013. Acrylic on panel, 40 x 84 in. Image courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid

Sonny Assu: Possession
Curated by Jon Davies
Oakville Galleries at Centennial Square
1 December 2013 – 16 February

Review by Ellyn Walker

Possession is the condition of having, occupying or owning something. Sonny Assu’s recent solo exhibition at Oakville Galleries explored notions of possession through both historical and contemporary lenses, drawing links between Canada’s colonial project and intensifying capitalist tendencies. Aptly located in Centennial Square—a large central building in downtown Oakville that also houses its public library—Possession raised important questions about how knowledges are brokered, how exchange takes place, and how communities participate in cultural expression. These questions reemerged throughout the works, inviting viewers to consider how histories, art and sites interrelate—a pertinent consideration for a city like Oakville that sits atop the original meeting place of the Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee and Wyandot peoples. Thus, the exhibition itself can be regarded as an intervention into the bucolic colonial suburb known as Oakville.

Born and raised in British Columbia, Assu is Liǥwildaʼxw of the We Wai Kai First Nation (Cape Mudge), an identity that is expressed throughout his body of work. Now living and working in Montreal, Assu’s practice grapples with a sense of place in a city that has long harboured its own political divisions—such as enduring Anglo-Franco tensions and the notoriously violent land dispute that took place at Kanesatake in 1990 (also known as the Oka Crisis). Often regarded as a politically active city—think of the 2012 tuition protests that saw thousands of students take to the streets as just one recent example—Assu’s practice articulates what he considers to be a void in Montreal’s political discussions: Indigenous issues of sovereignty. [1] Currently enrolled in the master of fine arts program in Fibres and Material Practices at Concordia University, Assu’s practice continues to evolve across relational geographies and material disciplines, as evident in the diversity of works exhibited in Possession. Curated by Jon Davies (the associate curator at Oakville Galleries), Assu’s range is celebrated in photographic, sculptural, installation and painterly forms, and reflects the complex, hybrid and sometimes paradoxical nature of cultural identities.

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Left: Sonny Assu: Possession (installation shot). Image courtesy of the Artist and the Oakville Galleries. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid. Right: Sonny Assu, Longing #25 (2011). Reclaimed Cedar, brass, 13.5 x 9 x 9.5 in. Image courtesy of the Artist and Equinox Gallery. Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid

Assu’s series of sculptures entitled Longing (2011) appear stoically throughout the gallery, like canonical European busts raised on plinths. These cedar logging offcuts originate from near Assu’s Vancouver Island reservation and resemble traditional Kwakwaka’wakw masks in their newly fashioned forms. Within the gallery, the woodcuts are re-presented as masks on brass stands, at varying heights and angles, and are characterized by Assu as “colonizers, warriors and bureaucrats.” [2] Assu’s reimagining of traditional Indigenous masks using contemporary waste (or logging refuse) interrupts the white cube in a number of ways. For instance, Assu’s combining of typically high and low materials enables him to nudge colonial, imperial and capitalist histories all at once. Similarly, since Western artists have predominantly used the mask to symbolize notions of primitivism or the so-called prehistorical, Assu’s subversion of the mask ruptures its colonial art histories and instead offers more nuanced understandings of cultural materials and Indigenous symbolism. It is up to viewers to negotiate the mask beyond its history as a fetishized ethnographic object, a call to reconsider how one encounters and, in turn, understands Indigenous objects.

This tension also exists in Assu’s photographic series Artifacts of Authenticity (2011), which extends his use of woodcuts by documenting them in various locales. Three beautifully framed, glossy photographs take up one gallery wall, depicting notable British Columbian sites, including the Museum of Anthropology, Equinox Gallery and Roberts Gallery and Gifts. These locations signify both canonical and contested sites of Indigenous representation and inclusion in Canada: the colonial museum, the commercial gallery and the tokenistic tourist shop. In these images, Assu restages the offcut masks in ways that intervene and unsettle their histories as Othered artifacts within each location’s politicized context. For instance, the image of the tourist shop portrays the cultural commodification and hyper-ethnicization of Aboriginal artifacts, now including a single woodcut mask on display amongst cultural kitsch. Through careful looking, one can see a security camera lurking in the far corner of the image. This reminder of surveillance is echoed in another part of the exhibition, the site-specific work Colonial Eyes, They’re Watching You… (2013). Although hardly noticeable, the gallery’s security camera is subtly reimagined, enveloped in copper leaf—an increasingly familiar material used throughout Assu’s practice.

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Sonny Assu, Colonial Eyes, They’re Watching You… (2013). Copper Leaf on reclaimed gallery surveillance camera. Image courtesy of the Artist and Art Mûr. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid

Davies’s accompanying curatorial text, “Face Value,” explores the ways in which Assu takes up visible and invisible histories in his work. We see this clearly in the installation 1884–1951 (2009), which was also part of last summer’s blockbuster international Indigenous exhibition Sakahàn at the National Gallery of Canada. Its breathtaking array of 67 copper coffee cups, akin to those of Starbucks, appear toppled over a vintage Hudson’s Bay blanket. Sixty-seven cups—the same number of years the potlatch ceremony was prohibited in Canada—is not the only metaphor at work in the piece. The mass of disposable copper cups subverts one’s material expectation of disposability, where unlike in the West, copper is a highly regarded material by the Kwakwaka’wakw people. Assu’s use of a dark red Hudson’s Bay blanket (different from the popular four-stripe version) evokes the blood and violence entangled in Canada’s history of colonial expansion. This work, like much of Assu’s practice, merges facets of the past with the present to mirror other parallels at stake, such as autobiography and cultural history, Indigeneity and coloniality, and cultural and consumer wealth.

In more graphic style, Assu employs painting in his series of giant, wooden crest sculptures. Each is colourfully painted in army camouflage or monochromatic and contrary colours and given Twitter hashtag names such as #IdleNoMore (2013), #angrybirds (2011) and #digitalnative (2011). Assu brings the pictorial style and recognizable shape of Chilkat weaving in conversation with other cultural practices such as graffiti and script writing, contributing to this series’ markedly hybrid style. Chilkat weaving is a traditional textile practice of the Tlingit, Tsimshian, Haida and other peoples of the Northwest Coast that features Indigenous imagery and lush wool fringe. Its distinctly vertical form and crest-like shape enabled high-ranking chiefs to wear Chilkat blankets as robes during special ceremonial occasions, such as the potlatch—a consistent cultural reference throughout Assu’s work. Although the aesthetic of each piece within the series differs greatly, Assu’s reliance on the Chilkat shape is highly politicized, as it insists on the visibility of a historically marginalized practice alongside other dominant cultural forms.

While the space of this review is not substantial enough to critically engage with all of the works in the exhibition (to the extent I would like), Possession offered a powerful artistic commentary on issues of identity, colonialism and sovereignty that adds to a growing dialogue around art practices and decolonization. The exhibition’s effect lies in its lingering; one returns to Assu’s works and their larger questions in everyday instances, such as when buying coffee or when seeing unused pieces of wood. What role does one play in perpetuating capitalistic and colonial practices? Where does one’s intention end and one’s intervention begin? These questions define a vector of considerations at play in Possession that move beyond the frame of the art exhibition and into real life.

Notes
[1] Sonny Assu, personal correspondence with the author, July 2013.
[2] Jon Davies, “Face Value” (Oakville: Oakville Galleries, 2013), 7.

Ellyn Walker is a curator and writer based in Toronto. Her work focuses on cross-cultural and artistic production as a type of decolonizing practice. Her research asks questions of inclusion and coalition in relation to the nation-state. Born and raised in Toronto, Walker is a settler of Scottish and Italian ancestry born on Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee and Wyandot territory. Her projects have been presented by the Art Gallery of Ontario, Prefix Institute of Contemporary Art, Xpace Cultural Centre and Videofag. Her writing has been published in C Magazine, the Journal for Curatorial Studies, PUBLIC, Magenta magazine, Studio and Sketch. Ellyn recently completed her MFA at OCAD University in the Criticism & Curatorial Practice program.

 

 

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