Overlaying lost stories over classic art

Sonny Assu pushes viewers to consider the absence of Indigenous presence in Canadian art

Indigenous artist Sonny Assu uses digital collage and intervention in his work We shall reassert our inherent rights.
Image by: Auston Chhor
Indigenous artist Sonny Assu uses digital collage and intervention in his work We shall reassert our inherent rights

A striking new exhibition at the Union Gallery sees iconic Canadian artworks reimagined through the eyes of an Indigenous artist. 

The exhibition, Re-mixed: Reconfiguring the Imaginary, was curated by Ellyn Walker and features a series of digital paintings by Vancouver-based artist Sonny Assu entitled “Interventions on the Imaginary.”  

Assu’s works take classic Canadian paintings by artists like A.Y. Jackson and Paul Kane, and overlays his own images over on top to challenge the “settler-colonialism” lens that appears in the original paintings. 

A particularly striking work is a digital overlay on A.Y. Jackson’s 1927 painting Kispayaks Village. Assu’s piece, entitled They’re Coming! Quick! I have a better hiding place for you. Dorvan V, You’ll love it, features an Indigenous symbol made to resemble a space ship and a beam of light stretching out to rescue a group of Indigenous peoples. 

Sonny Assu’s piece They’re Coming! Quick! I have a better hiding place for you. Dorvan V, You’ll love it.

The title includes a playful allusion to Star Trek — Dorvan V is a planet in the show that’s home to Native American settlers who feared the loss of their traditional culture on Earth. 

Assu is a Ligwilda’xw (We Wai Kai) contemporary artist whose work has been featured at the National Gallery of Canada, the Seattle Art Museum and the Vancouver Art Gallery, among others. He’s currently an MFA candidate at Concordia University.

Assu drew his inspiration from Tsimshian-Haida scholar Marcia Crosby, whose iconic essay “The Construction of the Imaginary Indian” critiqued the commodification and misrepresentation of Indigenous identities.  

Assu employs a number of strategies to manipulate the original works of art, including digital collage and intervention, a technique where an artist interacts with an existing artwork. 

These manipulations allowed Assu to incorporate brightly coloured Indigenous iconography into historic paintings.

The iconography strongly contrasts with the muted colours of the original paintings, asking the viewer to consider how an Indigenous presence is so often omitted from normalized images of Canada. 

Director of the Union Gallery Jocelyn Purdie said the exhibition provides a number of opportunities for collaboration and discussion. 

“We hosted an interdisciplinary session of Inquiry@Queen’s, the undergraduate research skills conference, where 4 students presented their research on the topic of Colonization and Appropriation,” Purdie wrote in an e-mail.

She noted that the gallery has also held tours by the curator, Ellyn Walker, who spoke at the exhibition’s opening reception. 

Walker, who’s currently a PhD student in Cultural Studies at Queen’s, studies the politics of alliance in contemporary curatorial and artistic practices. 

She works at the Union Gallery as a research and programming assistant, where she tests out some of her research questions and ideas.

Walker said she was drawn to Assu’s work due to the “critical thinking and personal labour” involved in understanding works that are both artistic and political. 

“I am interested in what art can do through making viewers think differently about the way they come to know things, or what I consider a gesture of unsettling,” Walker wrote in an e-mail. 

Images, and art in general, are “powerful tools for understanding and constructing ideas of belonging,” she wrote. 

“I hope this project helps to complicate the very notion of what it means to represent histories, to reconcile relationships.

The exhibition closes March 19, when it will hold “Curating as Care”, a discussion with Walker and fellow curator Carina Magazzeni about the intersection of curation and critical investigation. 

Re-mixed: Reconfiguring the Imaginary forces viewers to confront the ways in which Canadian culture tends to erase any traces of Indigenous presence. 

Sonny Assu’s works feature bright colours, innovative design methods and witty references that make for an engaging and thoughtful exhibition.


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