Sonny Assu & the art of Indigenous resistance

Coke Salish Banner by Sonny Assu

Coke Salish Banner by Sonny Assu, photo by Vancouver 125 on Flickr, licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Last night I had the privilege of hearing Indigenous artist Sonny Assu speak at the Two Rivers Gallery here in Prince George. Assu is from the Liǥwildaʼx̱w (We Wai Kai) of the Kwakwaka’wakw nations and is currently completing his MFA at Concordia University in Montreal. He is a fantastic artist and a wonderful speaker–the hour just flew by as he showed us slides of his previous and current projects and explained his intention behind the images. He spoke knowledgeably and passionately about indigeneity; the legacy of colonialism in Canada; the effects of racism and residential schools on his family members; and Canada’s racist policies including the Indian Act and the potlatch ban. I learned so much from his talk and was able to connect it to many of the things we are studying in the First Peoples English class I’m teaching right now. (Two of my students were able to attend and enjoyed the talk very much.) His work as been shown in Canadian institutions such as the Vancouver Art Gallery and the National Gallery of Canada, as well as in international venues like the Seattle Art Museum and an upcoming show in a gallery in Paris, France. Assu uses icons of popular culture and advertising to highlight the effects of colonization on indigenous peoples in Canada. One of his most famous works is “Coke Salish,” a play on the internationally recognizable “Enjoy Coca-Cola” sign written in white script on a red background. Only instead of reading “Enjoy Coca-Cola,” Assu’s sign reads “Enjoy Coast Salish Territory,” a clever and powerful reminder that forces the viewer to recognize that when we are in Vancouver, we are actually on Coast Salish territory. We are welcome to enjoy it, but we must acknowledge whose territory we are on. If you are in Prince George, I encourage you to visit the Two Rivers Gallery to see a selection of Assu’s work; the exhibition, called “Echoes,” will be there until Feb. 1st. If you are not able to visit the exhibition in person, you can see many of Assu’s projects on his website, sonnyassu.com. Here are some of my other favourites (though honestly, it’s hard to choose favourites): The Happiest Future [artist’s statement here] Breakfast Series 1884-1951 [the years of the the potlatch ban]

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