The Art of Sonny Assu

The Longhouse series explores First Nations totem images as written communication.

The Artist

Sonny Assu is a Vancouver multi-disciplinary artist whose paintings, prints and three-dimensional pieces address First Nations’ issues, from stereotyping to the 67-year potlatch ban. “I want to challenge the idea of what the art of the culture is. It’s not just a tepee or a moccasin,” he says. His work has been exhibited at the National Gallery of Canada and the Seattle Art Museum. This month it appears at The Works Art & Design Festival (June 23 to July 5).

The Art

Syntax (pictured above) is one of 10 acrylics in the Longhouse series, which were painted on 76-by-213-centimetre wood panels. The winding shapes and totemic images within the works illustrate the potential for some First Nations peoples’ languages to develop into written form. Assu says totemic representations are similar to Asian characters and Egyptian hieroglyphics.

The Inspiration

Assu was inspired by his heritage – the Laich-Kwil-Tach language of the Weka’yi First Nation. He wanted this series to confront a common anthropological stereotype about First Nations, that a written language simply failed to evolve. “I’m trying to highlight that the totemic representations that you see are forms of written communication,” he says. “They tell a story of the people.”

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