Sonny Assu and Rande Cook draw from their experiences of both modern pop culture and traditional aboriginal ways to help create engaging and intriguing artwork. The two artists have their work on display at the Nanaimo Art Gallery at Vancouver Island University throughout the summer.

Sonny Assu and Rande Cook draw from their experiences of both modern pop culture and traditional aboriginal ways to help create engaging and intriguing artwork. The two artists have their work on display at the Nanaimo Art Gallery at Vancouver Island University throughout the summer.

Dual influences of culture shape artists’ work

Artists fuse strong popular culture influences with aboriginal traditions for Nanaimo Art Gallery exhibition

Sonny Assu lives with the dual influence of two very different cultures.

Through art, he tries to marry those together, to represent the experiences and memories of he and thousands of aboriginal people with traditional backgrounds and modern pop culture influences.

“I’m not making light of the culture,” Assu said, from his home in Montreal. “It doesn’t matter if you’re native or non-native, every kid has an iPod.”

Assu partners with Rande Cook to present Ebb and Flow, a new exhibit at the campus Nanaimo Art Gallery. The artists’ work explores new concepts while preserving their cultural heritage.

It’s their personal narrative which brings the issues in their artwork to life.

“It really made it more about me,” Assu said.

Assu’s photographic series, Artifacts of Authenticity, made in collaboration with artist Eric Deis, documents interventions in a museum collection, a commercial gallery, and a tourist shop.

Cuts of cedar found by the artist  become faceless ‘masks’ and take on new meanings as they are inserted into different contexts

Cook’s photographs, sculpture and mixed media work references the ancient ones, potlatch, plague, reincarnation, substance abuse, residential schools and the Indian Act.

Through his work, Cook addresses the need for renewal and reclamation, the growing strength of aboriginal culture, and the importance of sacred traditions, rituals, language, and stories.

After the decimation of culture from disease and residential schools, it was often anthropologists who identified what constituted native art. Aboriginal people are reclaiming their art and deciding what should be called ‘native art,’ and Assu notes that acclaimed carver Bill Reid faced opposition at times to his work.

If people do take issue with his statements, or question some of their beliefs and ideas, Assu said he welcomes the discussion about his goals and intentions in his artwork. Most of the time, people understand.

“They really latch on to what I’m doing,” he said.

Assu, or Ligwilda’xw of We Wai Kai (Cape Mudge), graduated from Emily Carr University in 2002 and participated in exhibits at the Vancouver Art Gallery, National Gallery of Canada and the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City.

As a teen, Assu carried a sketchbook, which held his creations of superheroes that would one day fill the pages of his comic books. He was also involved in music and theatre, originally aiming to become an actor before attending Emily Carr University.

“I feel like I’m a storyteller as well,” Assu said.

Victoria-based Cook, or Galapa of Kwakwaka’wakw, was born in Alert Bay on Vancouver Island. His cultural heritage lies in the Namgis, Maamtagila, and Mamalilikala tribes. Strongly influenced as a child by his grandfather, Gus Matilpi, Cook has since worked with mentors such as John Livingston for his mastery in wood sculpting, Robert Davidson in metal work, Calvin Hunt for his craftsmanship in wood and most recently with master Valentin Yotkov in repousee and chasing.

Ebb and Flow is currently on display in the gallery at Vancouver Island University. On Friday (June 1), Cook will be at the gallery to discuss the show at 4:30 p.m., followed by a First Nations feast and celebration at Shq’apthut: Gathering Place at 6 p.m. The events are free and open to the public.

Guided tours are also offered July 7 and Aug. 11 at 12:30 p.m. For more information, please call 250-740-6350 or e-mail info@nanaimogallery.ca.

arts@nanaimobulletin.com