The title of artists Sonny Assu and Rande Cook’s display at the campus location of the Nanaimo Art Gallery is very appropriate. The exhibition curated by Ellen McCluskey and Rose Spahan, which ran from May 18 to Sept. 1, is a presentation of the impact modern society has had upon certain aspects of First Nations culture. Together Assu and Cook illustrate First Nations traditions juxtaposed with the influence of colonialism and social change. Each piece represents the effort made to rob Aboriginal peoples of their culture, as well as First Nations peoples’ relentless sustainability and constant return to ancient traditions.
Assu and Cook’s pieces are individually created, but together they convey a powerful message. Assu’s collection includes a set of archival pigment prints of mask-shaped cedar slats titled We Wei Kai (Warrior #1) and Wise Ones (Elders #1–#4), as well as a series of four paintings titled Chilkat, both of which are mounted on the gallery walls. Cook’s side of the presentation is more 3-dimensional and includes two archival pigment prints, two interactive mask pieces, a sculpture, and two examples of traditional First Nations artwork, including a potlatch dance screen and power boards. For both artists’ displays there is an explanation near each piece written by Assu or Cook describing the inspiration behind the work as well as the historical and cultural context.
Both Assu and Cook use masks to express the effect of colonial forces upon First Nations culture. Assu does so in his archival pigment prints where he personifies cedar castoffs, which, according to the gallery information pamphlet, are from the traditional territory of the We Wei Kai Nation. In a simple series of high-quality photos, Assu creates a profound purpose for the dead trees. He uses them to assert the value of the culture to which they once belonged, to show what was taken away by way of colonialism, and also to renew the existence of the culture by showing its face. Cook does much the same thing in one of his contributions, to rise again, which is a slightly charred alder wood mask with its mouth partially missing. In this piece, Cook captures the traditional Aboriginal practice of burning items in order to free them from the physical world and send them onto the land of the dead. In his written description of the mask, Cook says the piece represents the actions of the government and the missionaries who removed First Nations children from their homes and forced them into residential schools. The missing mouth symbolizes the loss of voice in the Aboriginal people’s lives, and the charred wood proves that the beliefs of the traditional peoples are still recognized, despite the steps taken to expel them. Instead of using them as a tool to hide, Assu and Cook’s masks reveal the truth about the determination and battle for the right to practice Aboriginal traditions. Both Assu’s We Wei Kai and Wise Ones and Cook’s to rise again are examples of their mutual desire to sustain Aboriginal culture while making sure the struggle to do so is remembered.
In addition to invoking ancestral techniques in their art, Assu and Cook use current trends and social media to show the currency of First Nations culture. In Chilkat, his series of four paintings named after social media terminology, Assu blends the old and the new. The gallery pamphlet outlines the techniques applied to the paintings, explaining how Assu mixes classic Coast Salish patterns with his interpretation of what social media looks like. The result is engaging. Paintings #trending, #angrybirds, #digitalnative, and #tweetblast have an almost comic-book look to them, like ’60s pop-art using traditional First Nations shapes and colours. Cook brings traditional aspects of First Nations culture to a modern setting by using masks again. In Thank You God, one of his archival pigment prints, Cook stands in Times Square wearing a carved Aboriginal mask, the buzz of the Big Apple blurry behind him. The ancestral artwork placed in the fast-paced social setting creates a contrast where the representation of tradition (the mask) stands out in a city so densely populated that nobody is expected to be distinctive. A similar effect is created in another photograph in the series where Cook wears a mask at the Vatican in Italy. In the artwork description, Cook says the picture is intended to highlight the battle the First Nations people fought over their religion. The blend of familiar signatures of First Nations art with the inspiration of social media and modern priorities separates these pieces from the others in the collection. We can still see the push and pull of cultural differences, but there is something else in the paintings and photographs, something fresh, a channel of Aboriginal artwork that has not been tapped into before.
The order in which Assu and Cook place pieces using traditional materials and techniques beside experimental and abstract works captures the theme of the exhibition entirely. The suppression and the persistence of First Nations culture are clearly visible in certain pieces, and in others there is an uplifting sense of renewal and shift in perspective. By walking around the gallery and taking in the traditional aspects of the We Wei Kai warrior or the potlatch dance screen and then seeing the mask in New York City or the provocative shape and colour combinations in #trending, it becomes apparent that there is a sense of activity between tradition and new interpretation, and it is the viewer who, at that moment, is caught between the ebb and the flow.