by Katie Bunn-Marcuse, Bill Holm Center, Burke Museum
Sonny Assu studied the Kwakwaka’wakw collection at the Burke Museum in July 2012 on a grant from the Bill Holm Center for the Study of Northwest Coast Art. Assu is Ligwildaʼxw of the We Wai Kai First Nation (Cape Mudge). An interdisciplinary artist, Assu describes his work as “merging Northwest Coast iconography with the aesthetics of popular culture to challenge the social and historical values placed upon both.” His work explores his mixed ancestry and appropriates or transforms items of consumer and popular culture to trace the lineage of his own personal life. He is interested in ideas around Indigenous issues and rights, branding and new technologies. Assu says that his unique twist on Northwest Coast design comes from a desire to “contribute to a modern, contemporary discourse that places Northwest Coast form-line design smack in the middle of the contemporary art world.” Assu’s research in the Kwakwaka’wakw collection at the Burke Museum focused on potlatch regalia and objects associated with certain ceremonial dances. Assu reported that he hoped “to utilize this research to inform not only my current body of painting and design work, but I would like to use it as a starting point to formulate a new project that will be used to fulfill my recently received Canada Council production grant. “Consumption” will be a project that challenges the eye of authority behind anthropological institutions and tourist based curio shops.”
Assu’s work has been featured in several solo and group exhibits over the past years, notably Don’t Stop Me Now! and Comic Relief at the National Gallery of Canada, Beat Nation and How Soon is Now? at the Vancouver Art Gallery and Changing Hands: Art With Reservation Part 2 at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City. He is one of many visiting artist/researchers that the Bill Holm Center for the Study of Northwest Coast Art will host this year at the Burke Museum.
Kathryn Bunn-Marcuse is Assistant Director of the Bill Holm Center for the Study of Northwest Coast Art at the Burke Museum where she helps to facilitate grants to First Nations artists studying their heritage in museum collections. She is a Visiting Lecturer in Art History and American Indian Studies and an affiliated faculty of the Canadian Studies Department at the University of Washington.