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category: Art
published: March 2018
publisher: Heritage House Publishing

Sonny Assu

A Selective History

by Candice Hopkins; Ellyn Walker; Richard Van Camp & Marianne Nicolson, by (artist) Sonny Assu, foreword by Janet Rogers

tagged: canadian, artists' books, native american

A stunning retrospective highlighting the playfulness, power, and subversive spirit of Northwest Coast Indigenous artist Sonny Assu.

Through large-scale installation, sculpture, photography, printmaking, and painting, Sonny Assu merges the aesthetics of Indigenous iconography with a pop-art sensibility. This stunning retrospective spans over a decade of Assu’s career, highlighting more than 120 full-colour works, including several never-before-exhibited pieces.


Through analytical essays and personal narratives, Richard Van Camp, Marianne Nicolson, Candice Hopkins, and Ellyn Walker provide brilliant commentary on Assu’s practice, its meaning in the context of contemporary art, and its wider significance in the struggle for Indigenous cultural and political autonomy. Exploring themes of Indigenous rights, consumerism, branding, humour, and the ways in which history informs contemporary ideas and identities, Sonny Assu: A Selective History is the first major full-scale book to pay tribute to this important, prolific, and vibrant figure in the Canadian contemporary art world.

About the Authors

Candice Hopkins is a curator and writer who has held curatorial positions at the National Gallery of Canada, the Western Front, and the Walter Phillips Gallery. She is currently the chief curator at the AIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Hopkins holds an MA from the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College. Her writings on history, art, and vernacular architecture have been published by MIT Press, BlackDog Publishing, Revolver Press, New York University, The Fillip Review and, the National Museum of the American Indian, among others. She lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Sonny Assu is a Ligwildaxw Kwakwaka’wakw contemporary artist known for combining traditional visual elements of his Northwest Coast heritage with emblems of colonialism and Western consumer culture. His work has been exhibited worldwide and has been accepted into the permanent collections of the National Gallery of Canada, Seattle Art Museum, Vancouver Art Gallery, Museum of Anthropology at UBC, Burke Museum at the University of Washington, the Audain Art Museum in Whistler, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, and various other institutions. He holds a BFA from Emily Carr University and an MFA from Concordia University.

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. 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 holds an MFA at OCAD University in the Criticism & Curatorial Practice program.

Richard Van Camp is a member of the Dogrib (Tlicho) Nation from Fort Smith, Northwest Territories. He is a graduate of the En'owkin International School of Writing, the University of Victoria's Creative Writing BFA Program, and the Master’s in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. He is an internationally renowned storyteller and best-selling author who began his career as an intern on the writing staff of the acclaimed CBC TV series North of 60, and continued on as a script and cultural consultant for four seasons. His novel The Lesser Blessed was adapted into a film and premiered in 2012 at the Toronto International Film Festival. Richard has also published several short story collections, including Night Moves and The Moon of Letting Go; children’s books, including What’s the Most Beautiful Thing You Know About Horses? with artist George Littlechild and Little You with artist Julie Flett; and graphic novels, including Three Feathers with artist Krystal Mateus. He has taught creative writing at the University of British Columbia, worked as a Creative Writing and Storytelling instructor with the Emily Carr Institute, and was the Writer in Residence at the University of Alberta for 2011 and 2012 and at MacEwan University in 2013 and 2014. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta.

Marianne Nicolson (‘Tayagila’ogwa) is an artist of Scottish and Dzawada_’enux_w First Nations descent. Her training encompasses both traditional Kwakwa_ka_’wakw forms and culture and Western European–based art practice. She has completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Emily Carr University of Art and Design (1996), a Masters in Fine Arts (1999), a Masters in Linguistics and Anthropology (2005), and a PhD in Linguistics, Anthropology, and Art History (2013) at the University of Victoria. She has exhibited her artwork locally, nationally, and internationally; has written and published numerous essays and articles; and has participated in multiple speaking engagements. Her practice engages with issues of Aboriginal histories and politics arising from a passionate involvement in cultural revitalization and sustainability. She lives in Victoria, BC.

Janet Rogers is a Mohawk/Tuscarora writer from the Six Nations band in Ontario. She was born in Vancouver and has been living on the traditional lands of the Coast Salish people in Victoria, British Columbia, since 1994. Janet works in the genres of poetry, spoken-word performance poetry, video poetry, recorded poetry with music, and script writing. From 2012 to 2014, Janet served as Poet Laureate of Victoria. Janet has published three poetry collections to date: Splitting the Heart (Ekstasis Editions, 2007), Red Erotic (Ojistah, 2010), and Unearthed (Leaf Press, 2011). Her poetry CDs Firewater (2009), Got Your Back (2012), and 6?Directions (2013) all received ­nominations for Best Spoken Word Recording at the Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards, the Aboriginal Peoples Choice Music Awards, and the Native American Music Awards. Janet hosts Native Waves Radio on CFUV and Tribal Clefs on CBC Radio One in Victoria. Her radio documentaries Bring Your Drum: 50 Years of Indigenous Protest Music and Resonating Reconciliation won Best Radio at the imagineNATIVE Film and Media festival in 2011 and 2013.

Editorial Reviews

"Sonny Assu’s eclectic blending of formline aesthetic and popular culture is amplified by a medley of contributors’ voices telling stories, revealing history, and setting the stage for Assu’s critiques of past and current colonial atrocities. The essays provide key insights into current modes of resilience and resistance by Assu and his generation of Indigenous artists, while his clever artist statements, through humour and biting commentary, reveal obsessions with popular culture, ignorance of stinging histories, and demand that we question personal responsibility"

—Kathryn Bunn-Marcuse, curator of Northwest Native Art, Burke Museum

— Burke Museum

“This brilliant book not only provides readers with an overview of the career of one of Canada’s most important artists but also links his development to the contemporary creative practices of First Nations artists in BC politics and history—the intersection of stories with visual expression. All this unveils historical truths and artistic insights that elevate Sonny Assu to greatness."

—Dr. Ron Burnett, Order of Canada, Order of BC. President and vice-chancellor, Emily Carr University of Art and Design

— Emily Carr University of Art and Design

The visually driven book highlights the artist’s work, with accompanying essays by contemporaries and Assu himself. Assu’s art leaps from medium to medium and includes graphic art, carvings, prints, photography and combinations of each.

— High Country News

"Framed by contributions from some of our brightest Indigenous intellectuals, Sonny Assu’s canvas is more than an examination of how Indigenous Peoples respond to the Canadian experience. His witty and gentle hand offers Canada a mirror to consider its own scarred identity."

—Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas

— Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas

It’s surprising to realize that Assu, a three-time Sobey Art Award long-lister, with a long exhibition list and work in important collections, including the National Gallery of Canada and the Vancouver Art Gallery, graduated from Vancouver’s Emily Carr University only in 2002. His rise has been swift, his work sure-footed from the start, and he has been prolific in his exploration of installation, sculpture, photography, printmaking and painting. The book’s title, A Selective History, might sound presumptuous for one just edging into his 40s, but it fits both the artist’s personal trajectory and the wrongs of the past that his work confronts.

— GalleriesWest
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