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Sonny Assu and other First Nations artists go hip and urban, challenging stereotypes at a new Vancouver Art Gallery show
Sonny Assu is a child of the ’80s who spent his formative years soaked in television, sugar, and Spider-Man comics. Describing his youth with his Kwakwaka’wakw mother and grandparents in the suburbs of North Delta, the 36-year-old artist, who recently relocated from Vancouver to Montreal, speaks fondly of “reading comic books and [watching] movies and advertising and Star Wars, and [eating] sugary cereals.…All that stuff was as much my culture as my traditional heritage was.”
His art, a kind of hybrid of aboriginal and pop, could not come out of any other upbringing. Assu is perhaps best known for his Coke Salish piece (the words Enjoy Coast Salish Territory spelled out in the iconic Coca-Cola script) and his riff on familiar cereals, boxes boasting names such as “Treaty Flakes” and “Salmon Loops”, which, at first glance, could easily be mistaken for their Post and Kellogg’s counterparts.
“It’s definitely really interesting to see that this urban aboriginal identity is really starting to take hold—which is really indicative of what the conditions are like in Canada, because most aboriginal people do live in urban settings,” he observes, in conversation with the Straight in the VAG library.
The always witty and often cheeky Assu, an Emily Carr University of Art + Design grad, is fast gaining recognition for works that use pop-culture references and biting satire to bring attention to First Nations issues. He is also part of what could be dubbed a new wave of aboriginal artists—highlighted in the Vancouver Art Gallery’s Beat Nation exhibition—melding urban, street, and hip-hop culture with their traditional heritage. These young artists are ushering in a new kind of culture, redefining what it is to be Native in a media-saturated world, and challenging stereotypes with double-edged humour.