Marget Milne | Sonny Assu & Rande Cook at The Nanaimo Art Gallery

Guest writer Marget Milne takes us through the Nanaimo Art Gallery’s current exhibition of contemporary First Nations artists Sonny Assu and Rande Cook.

Ebb and Flow: Sonny Assu and Rande Cook at The NAG

Sonny Assu, “# trending”, 2011, acrylic on panel, “#tweetblast”, 2011, acrylic on panel. Courtesy of the Artist and Equinox Gallery

by Marget Milne

The gratifying thing about the Vancouver Island University location of the Nanaimo Art Gallery, is that it sits at the top of many, many stairs. This makes going there an intentional pilgrimage, where anticipation builds as you climb, and you are rewarded for your efforts with a stunning ocean view at the summit before entering the gallery. I imagine staff there are used to breathless bursts of intention blowing into their quiet foyer, which explains the patient smiles I received.

I am welcomed into the gallery by a large crimson canvas, which announces the exhibit in inky script, and casts a soft pink glow on the gallery wall; an early indication of the power and subtlety of Ebb and Flow: Sonny Assu & Rande Cook. The exhibit features two young BC artists of Aboriginal descent, Assu & Cook, whose common thread is that they both “push accepted boundaries to redefine societal expectations and understandings of First Nations art and culture”, according to the catalogue written by curator Ellen McCluskey.

Upon entering the upper gallery, I am immediately drawn in by Assu’s Chilkat series. The four large panels line the main wall, claiming center stage. Each one takes the shape of a traditional Chilkat blanket, which were historically woven by the Tsimshian, and then the Tlingit Chilkat people. The blankets were highly valued, with stylized clan representations woven into them.

Sonny Assu, Installation View, Chilkat series, acrylic on panel

Here, traditional iconography is replaced with references to technology and social media, representative of how people today self-identify and build ‘clans’. Assu suggests the use of traditional formline, yet the formline is broken; abstracted. The colour palettes do pay tribute to the traditional with red and black and touches of blue, but they are infused with modern injections of pink, teal, gold, and charcoal. With this series, Assu seeks to, “open the dialogue about the use of consumerism, branding and technology as totemic representation” (Assu).

Sonny Assu, “#trending”, 2011, acrylic on panel, Courtesy of
the Artist and Equinox Gallery

Sonny Assu has the gift of creating resonance with his audience; of sparking a connection. In fact, his Chilkat series are the pieces that most of the art camp kids inhabiting the gallery today have chosen to sketch. People who have a background in traditional Northwest Coast art understand that he is referencing the traditional, but realize he is blowing open the boundaries, whereas people new to Northwest Coast art identify with the pop culture references and the street art vibe, and are triggered to examine the underlying subject matter further as a result.

Sonny Assu, “wise ones” and “We Wei Kai’ ,2011, archival pigment
print, Courtesy of the Artist and Equinox Gallery

Assu’s Longing series, represented here in archival pigment prints, provides photo representations of the original sculptures, or ‘masks’, which are actually found remnants from the building industry, unchanged by the artist, but enhanced with lighting & presentation.

Warrior #1 is brightly backlit, drawing attention to sharp edges, raw chainsaw marks in fresh wood, creating a vibrant & impulsive character, and suggesting fresh wounds. In stark contrast, his Elders are softly lit, emphasizing the aged, graying wood, which creates a weathered and wise appearance. Each sculpture looks more like a deliberately formed mask the longer you look at it: here you see an expression, there a feature. These sculptures also ignite thought about sculpture itself: is it the artist, the medium or the presentation that creates its power? Is a found object considered art? Is this Aboriginal art? Is this an artifact since it was found on traditional Aboriginal territory? Assu succeeds in drawing in the viewer with a provocative concept, sparking thought, conversation and debate about deeper issues.

Assu’s work continues down the stairwell and into the lower gallery, with his Artifacts of Authenticity, a series of three photographs representing the “three perceived eyes of authority on Northwest Coast indigenous art and culture: the anthropology institution, the commercial gallery and the proverbial ‘tourist trap’ curio shop” (Assu).

Sonny Assu, Artifacts of Authenticity (Museum)

Placing a sculpture from his Longing series within the context of each of these places, Assu illustrates the debate about art versus artifact that has been going on for decades in regards to Northwest Coast art, and the liberties taken by various authorities on art. It is intriguing to view a piece of art in various contexts and to consider the effect that the context has on the perceived value and authenticity of the piece. Certainly this idea could be applied to any piece of art, however here it bears additional weight.


Rande Cook is featured on both the upper & lower galleries as well, with clear thematic distinction between the two. Upstairs, his large installation, The Gift of the Ancient Ones, represents various ceremonial objects, demonstrating the impact of colonization on these objects and ceremonies.

Rande Cook Installation view

The most compelling piece in the installation is the Warrior Corpse, which is a large carved figure, head bowed, arms wrapped around knees, encased in a glass box, the base of which is wrapped in a Hudson’s Bay blanket. According to Cook, this figure represents “the ones who have passed and stored our sacred traditions in the heavens”, reflecting the traditional belief in reincarnation, with the blanket as representation of oppression and disease. Certainly the most striking aspect is the feeling that manifests when viewing such vulnerability through a glass box – the uncomfortable feeling of inspecting a specimen, of intruding on something sacred is palpable.

Throughout the exhibit, Cook addresses the way in which we view aboriginal art and culture, making it clear that a genuine experience of culture is impossible this way. This theme is continued with a pair of photographs entitled Thank You God and New York, New York (whose clip-frames are causing warping of the images, an issue that almost overwhelms me with the urge to steal them and bring them back professionally matted and framed) depicting Cook wearing a mask in both the Vatican and New York City, and two interactive sculptures, Through the Eyes of a Chief and Indian Film.

The sculptures are unique in that Cook invites the audience to *wear a mask while viewing potlatch images framed in a camera box, commenting again on our inability to see culture clearly through a lens of any kind, or to convey it through film, rather it is a living, spiritual thing that must be experienced to be understood. Interestingly, the process of wearing of the mask itself turns the table on the conversation, allowing us to experience first-hand the feeling of wearing a mask, and seeing the effect and power the mask has on both the person wearing it, and their audience.

Rande Cook, “When We Dance”, 2011, red cedar, paint

In the downstairs gallery however, Cook’s work seems to come alive with optimism, as is evident in his playful subject matter and joyous colour palette. His large cedar panel piece entitled When We Danced, surprises with its playfulness, depicting an energetic tango scene. Cook has sandblasted the cedar, brightening the grain, and uses more modern and unusual colours mixed with traditional red and black, but here the red and black also reference the traditional colours of tango.

Also featured in the lower gallery are his cedar Dragonfly and Beethoven, which continue in the modernized, bright palette of red, deeper blue, sage green, mustard, teal, with the addition of copper pieces, suggesting prosperity and referencing the value of copper in traditional Aboriginal society. Beethoven also speaks to Cook’s love of music, paying homage to the importance of classical music as a basis for all music, much like the role traditional technique plays in Cook’s own art.

Ebb and flow is an appropriate metaphor for this exhibit in many ways: the pull between traditional and contemporary style and subject matter for all artists with Aboriginal roots, the pull between the specific styles of these two artists, and within their own individual bodies of work. The exhibit is on display at the Nanaimo Art Gallery through September 1, 2012, and is presented in partnership with VIU’s Shq’apthut: Gathering Place and VIU, Office of Aboriginal Education


* note – this was not clear in the self-guided tour, but you are invited to wear the masks.


About the Artists

Sonny Assu is Ligwilda’xw of the We Wei Kai Nation (Cape Mudge). Assu was previously based in Vancouver where he graduated from Emily Carr University, and he now resides in Montreal. Assu has works in the National Gallery of Canada, UBC’s Museum of Anthropology (where his most recognizable work to date, CokeSalish currently resides) and the Seattle Art Museum. Assu was recently long-listed for the Sobey Art Award.

(K’alapa) was born in Alert Bay, and is now based in Victoria. Cook has worked with many influential mentors such as John Livingston, Robert Davidson, Calvin Hunt and Valentin Yotkov.


is a freelance writer, originally from Vancouver, BC, now working and living on beautiful Vancouver Island, BC. With a background in Art History, Literature and Education, and a keen interest in visual arts, architecture & design, she is part of a growing movement dedicated to increasing the exposure and appreciation of arts and culture on the island.


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