First Nations artists go hip and urban at the Vancouver Art Gallery’s Beat Nation exhibition

Sonny Assu and other First Nations artists challenging stereotypes at a new VAG show

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      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.

      “I think you see throughout the exhibition the sort of power inherent in being able to appropriate an object from mainstream culture and repurpose it in a way that signifies aboriginal heritage,” observes Tania Willard, co-curator of Beat Nation, on the line from Banff. Adds Kathleen Ritter, the other curator, in conversation at her VAG office: “They [the exhibiting artists] are appropriating pop culture in these really innovative ways that actually speak to the shifting demographics of aboriginal people today. And I think it speaks to the real, lived experience. You don’t just live in one culture; you live in many cultures at the same time.”

      The VAG exhibition features more than 25 artists working in various disciplines, and is based on a 2008 online initiative curated by Willard and performance artist Skeena Reece for the grunt gallery, exploring the relationship between aboriginal hip-hop, visual arts, and traditional culture. Pieces at the VAG range from the confrontational to the confessional: there’s the graffiti mural by Haida artists Corey Bulpitt and Larissa Healey, spray-painted directly onto a gallery wall; turntables carved out of walnut, oak, and spruce by Mi’kmaq artist Jordan Bennett; and video works that include a music video by Cree artist Kent Monkman, who appears on-screen as his drag alter ego Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, in a homage to German “sauerkraut westerns”.

      Assu’s contributions are two new works, both inspired by rediscovered recordings of First Nations chiefs, including Assu’s great-great-grandfather, Chief Billy Assu, singing traditional songs during the potlatch ban. The first is a series of 136 copper replica LPs, one for each year the Indian Act has been law in Canada. “The piece is.…a conceptual record for every one of those years,” explains Assu, who calls the Indian Act “legislated oppression”.

      Assu’s second piece is a series of elk-hide drums, painted with abstract Northwest Coast form lines, that are also meant to resemble records. There are 67 in total—one for each year of the potlatch ban, which lasted from 1884 to 1951. “It’s called Billy and the Chiefs,” Assu explains. “I was listening to the record [of his great-great-grandfather] and thinking, ‘What could be, like, a really kind of almost cheesy kind of band name from the ’50s?’”

      The use of winking humour is meant to draw people in, Assu explains. “You know, there’s the kind of perception of the ‘angry Indian’ who’s always like, ‘My land has been stolen, my culture’s been stolen.’ And that’s valid, but that’s not my argument. I just don’t feel like I could own that anger.…I want to bring people into the conversation. I want people to understand what the issues are.”

      Willard notes that humour and survival go hand in hand. “It functions in the face of adversity as a tool of healing and a tool of survival,” she observes. “And it’s this kind of irreverent humour and humour in the face of adversity that we see throughout the exhibition.”

      Assu is certain that given its size and scope, Beat Nation marks a defining moment for contemporary aboriginal artists. “I think this exhibit is supremely important, especially in terms of what is seen as contemporary art, what is seen as conceptual art, and what is seen as Native art,” he insists. Noting that his work has not always been well-received by aboriginal elders, he adds: “I think the show is definitely going to help inspire a lot of youth to understand that they can do something different, and that they shouldn’t have any reservations about doing so.…People would tell me, ‘That’s not art, that’s not traditional art, that’s not Native art.’ And I had to say, ‘That’s not what I’m making. I’m making art, I’m making my own culture.’”

      Beat Nation runs at the Vancouver Art Gallery from Saturday (February 25) to June 3.