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Vancouver exhibit features graffiti tagging over Emily Carr paintings

Sonny Assu makes wry commentary with Sci-Fi twist in We Come to Witness.

Sonny Assu’s ‘Making a b-line to HaidaBucks, Salmonberry Frap #ftw #starbucksfail#lol, a digital intervention on an Emily Carr painting is one of the works displayed as part of Assu’s We Come to Witness exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

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Sonny Assu’s ‘Making a b-line to HaidaBucks, Salmonberry Frap #ftw #starbucksfail#lol, a digital intervention on an Emily Carr painting is one of the works displayed as part of Assu’s We Come to Witness exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

In 1912, famed West Coast artist Emily Carr painted a picture of the entrance to the home village of Sonny Assu’s grandmother.

The focus of the painting, titled Graveyard Entrance, was a carved wooden gate leading into a cemetery with lush greenery behind it.

Now, the same view of the Campbell River territory is not nearly as picturesque: there’s a Walmart in view.

So Assu decided to make his own mark on Carr’s work.

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He superimposed a large, colourful graffiti tag over a reproduction the painting and retitled it: What a Great Spot for a Walmart!

It’s one of many cheeky works displayed in Assu’s We Come to Witness exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery that opened on Dec 3.

“I wanted to reassert an Indigenous presence on these iconic Canadian landscapes as a way of saying: ‘We are still here,’” said Assu, who is of Ligwilda'xw Kwakwaka'wakw descent.

“The ramifications of colonization are still very present in today’s society and that’s something I wanted to comment on in these works.”

The new exhibit contains numerous Carr replicas that Assu has been “tagging” since late 2013, and that he has given sardonic titles to including It was, like a super long time ago that ppl were here, right? and Choke on an Ovoid.

Assu said he began digitally covering Carr’s work -- and signature -- with colourful ovoid shapes as a way of criticizing Carr’s perceived depictions of Indigenous people being a dying race.

But during his process, Assu said he came to understand that Carr actually had profound appreciation for Indigenous communities, so he started keeping her signature intact, only outlining it.

“I don’t feel like I’m a fanboy of her work,” he reflected.

Sonny Assu’s ‘What a Great Spot for a Walmart!’ a digital intervention on Emily Carr’s Graveyard Entrance, Campbell River, 1912.
Contributed

Contributed

Sonny Assu’s ‘What a Great Spot for a Walmart!’ a digital intervention on Emily Carr’s Graveyard Entrance, Campbell River, 1912. Contributed

“But I think at one point in my past I didn’t appreciate it as much as I do now.”

Assu’s work takes up four rooms of the gallery and the exhibit also includes carvings and ceramics.

Many of his pieces are displayed among original Carr paintings that are in the gallery’s possession.

In one room, he tells the story of his grandmother’s and his own experiences with racism at school with two modified desks from different eras.

In another, he features cedar offcuts from his home territory -- trees that are sacred to his people but were thrown out as scraps from a non-Indigenous man’s logging effort.

Assu has been working as an artist for more than a decade, and said he always wants to bring a base discussion around colonialism and Indigenous issues to the forefront with his work.

He said he sees an increasing need for politically impactful art on Indigenous subjects, especially in an Internet with the increasing circulation of fake news.

“I think it’s artists that are going to bring a lot of truth and insight into those issues,” he said.

“The artists out responding to these current political issues are really important, because they’re the documenters of what’s going on.”

We Come to Witness is on display until April 23.