Assertion of Sovereignty

South Gallery + George Sawchuk Gallery



“They make magic lines on the land that only they can see.” – A Hupacasath man’s response to early colonial surveyors demarcating the boundaries of his reserve

This quote and accompanying photo are on display at the Campbell River Museum. I found it to be a poignant reminder of the creation of these works, as it calls into question the colonial and capitalist structures that removed/moved and confined Indigenous people to specific segregated areas within their territories. The interventions I place onto these works act as an assertion of Indigenous sovereignty over these colonized landscapes. It’s a reminder that, before European contact, my Ligwiłda’xw ancestors and other Indigenous Peoples once had full reign over their territories. Looking at these charts, I can imagine the vast networks of trade, communication, and kinship my ancestors once had. In the end, the wave of colonialism relined indigenous nations to the confines of imposed boundaries, only visible and enforceable by settlers with magic eyes.


On display for the first time (outside his home or studio) is Assu’s collection of problematic, bigoted and racist memorabilia, bric-a-brac and other media from a bygone era… Is it really bygone, though? This archive aims to preserve the not-too-distant past’s view of Indigenous people from [what is now known] as North America (and beyond). The goal is to foster a dialogue around how the past informs the present and future understandings of Indigenous peoples and the issues of colonization.


Sonny Assu (Ligwiłda’xw of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nations) was raised in North Delta, BC, over 250 km from his ancestral home on Vancouver Island. Having been raised as your everyday average suburbanite, it wasn’t until he was eight years old that he clued into his Kwakwaka’wakw heritage. In his mid-20s, while attending Emily Carr, that discovery would be the conceptual focal point that helped launch his unique art practice.

Assu explores multiple mediums and materials to negotiate Western and Kwakwaka’wakw principles of art-making. Often autobiographical, his work can be humorous, laden with pop culture, comic book and sci-fi references. But it can also be solemn, political, educational and activist in tone. His diverse practice deals with the realities of being Indigenous in the colonial state of Canada, which mirrors the plight of Indigenous and colonized peoples around the world.

Sonny received his BFA from the Emily Carr University in 2002 and was honoured with the University’s distinguished alumnus award, the Emily Award, in 2006. In 2017, he successfully defended his MFA thesis exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery (We Come to Witness) for Concordia University.

Assu received a BC Creative Achievement Award in First Nations Art in 2011, has been named a Laureate for the Hnatyshyn Foundation’s REVEAL – Indigenous Art Awards in 2017, and is an Eiteljorg Contemporary Arts Fellowship recipient for 2021.

Sonny’s work has been accepted into The National Gallery of Canada, Vancouver Art Gallery, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, The Art Gallery of Ontario, The Forge Collection, Eiteljorg Museum, Thunder Bay Art Gallery, Art Gallery of Guelph, The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Museum of Anthropology at UBC, The Seattle Art Museum, The Burke Museum, Audain Art Museum, and various other public and private collections across Canada, the United States, and the UK.

He currently resides in ƛam̓atax̌ʷ (Campbell River, BC).


The Paradise Syndrome (Series) Transcription:

“This is Assertion of Sovereignty, and this presents to you a body of work I’ve been working on since 2016, starting with the works in the back over here called The Paradise Syndrome.

The Paradise Syndrome takes its name from Star Trek episode, actually. When Kirk and the crew were floating around in space, they came across a planet inhabited by quote-unquote ‘Native Americans’, filled with stereotypes of what Native Americans look like in the 60s — you’ll see a lot of that in that room at the back over there. It was an interesting way to just throw my love of sci fi and pop culture as a title onto these pieces. In the show, there’s these obelisks that control the planet that these people are living on; I see a lot of these interventions on top of these marine charts as that obelisk shape. What I wanted to do is talk about how and why we, as Indigenous peoples on the coast and across what is now known as North America, have been subjugated to these little places called reserves.

“I inherited these spiral bound notebooks from my grandfather after his passing. My mother explained to me that I wasn’t to do anything with them other than look at them. I wanted to make a bunch of art out of it, but she was like, ‘No way!’

“I had to scan them in in four different chunks on the scanner bed, because the scanner bed was too small. That allowed me to see details in these charts that I wasn’t able to see before. As I was going through them, I saw all these little broken chunks of land that were demarked with ‘IR’: IR #1, #2, #11, whatever it might be. That is what the government left for my ancestors and the ancestors that come from down around here.

“This series was also inspired by a quote that I saw at the Campbell River Museum. In their display, as you’re walking through the history of the area, you’ll come across a photograph of an Indigenous man looking through a surveyor’s tool. It’s the quote on that photograph that really made me think about the context of the series. He said they make imaginary lines on the land that only they can see. And those are the lines that they were making to demark the reserve boundaries. What I did, with that in mind, is I went through all of these charts and I found all the reserve shapes in the land base, and I broke them out of a tlakwa shape — a copper shape. To break a copper symbolizes a shaming.

“I always relate to when, most famously, Beau Dick walked from his home Alert Bay all the way down to Victoria and broke his copper on the steps of the legislature to shame the government for their inaction towards the Indigenous peoples. With that in mind — if the government was with it, which they kind of aren’t sometimes — they would repay that, and they would rectify the instances that they caused. Of course, through colonization, we’re never going to get that kind of dialogue. That’s what I wanted to kind of symbolize within these pieces, it’s the breaking of these coppers.

“For instance, there’s the one map of Quadra Island and the main Vancouver Island adjacent — Campbell River, my Traditional Territory, where my ancestors come from. I broke out about seven or eight different shapes of the reserve lands out of the copper. It’s interesting to see those little chunks of land broken out of that space, because my ancestors had full reign of that territory for hundreds of thousands of years. To see what is left to us by the colonial powers that be was really shocking.”

The Paradise Syndrome (Mural) Transcription:

“I did this one here on the back wall, Voyage #11 and #12, for the first time in Victoria. It was made in the beginning of 2016, actually, when it was Trump’s first term as president. He was talking about the wall nonstop: ‘We’re going to build a wall across the southern border.’

“What I did is I built a wall across the northern border with these kind of design shapes along the bottom there just to be kind of facetious and tongue-in-cheek, but, again, highlighting the fact that this is Indigenous territory and we all come from these spaces.”

Territorial Acknowledgments Transcription:

“On the back wall behind me here, we have Territorial Acknowledgements from 2018. I first presented this work at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery at the University of Washington in Seattle.

“There’s an element of humor to my work that sometimes isn’t as obvious; but it is there. I really wanted to just kind of poke fun at the notion of these territorial acknowledgments that are very prevalent these days. Sometimes, they’re done in such a way that is respectful and beautiful, as just we saw this afternoon — but, sometimes, you’ll see people just kind of blurt them out like, ‘Oh, here we are, the Territory of the Kʼómoks and Pentlatch peoples…’

“It comes off as lip service every once in a while. I find that, with this era of reconciliation, people are trying to reconcile but they’re not really going for it in a very meaningful way. And I find that the way that territorial acknowledgments have been used doesn’t really seem like it’s a very positive state, and I just wanted to kind of poke fun at that.

“What I’ve done is I’ve collected these thrift shop paintings. I started collecting them over the years when I was living in Montreal. I was originally going to use them for a different painting series, but I went a different way with them, and I decided to just paint over these spaces with red ochre to reference the land and the importance of the red ochre to ceremony and Indigenous peoples. What I have left is these little windows of the colonial landscapes, because mostly when you see these kind of colonial landscapes painted in these landscape sort of ways, like the Group of Seven and the like, it’s really painting this ideological landscape devoid of Indigeneity. I’m kind of highlighting those facts in these windows that you see here, but I’m doing it with the red ochre and kind of like the pictogram, petroglyph kind of markings with the white on top of that.”

Landlines Transcription:

“Moving over to the back wall, I’ve got this series called Landlines. Again, this is using marine charts, but I’ve actually gone through and I’ve found the bigger marine charts that you could find readily available in thrift shops and the like now. I’ve cut the various ovoid shapes and various other representations out of the maps. And I have done this painting and collage work alongside of it.

Landlines, to me, is a throwback to the telephones of yore, the olden day telephones. I felt it was an interesting way to talk about having a conversation with the land and having a conversation with the ancestors through that direct connection to the land base itself.”

Sonny’s NDN Kitsch Collection Transcription:

“In the back room we have Sonny’s NDN Kitsch Collection, which I am really excited to present for the first time. I’ve been showing friends photos during the install and just having a good laugh. I remember bringing the work down the first day for the install and Denise and Glen were both chuckling nervously, because they were they weren’t really too sure if they should be laughing at the absurdity of some of this stuff that is there.

“It highlights the assumptions of what or who Indigenous peoples should be through that lens of pop culture and kitsch and memorabilia from a certain era. I have some ads that go all the way back to the late 1800s and all the way up until the 1970s. Some of the stuff that is there as well is recent. I’ve got a set of Smurfs. I’ve got a rubber ducky that comes from the Tomahawk restaurant in Vancouver. There’s all these stereotypical representations of Indigenous peoples presented there in a way that really solidifies how people see Indigenous folks as something to be used and something to be discarded, which mirrors the land and what I’m talking about through this [other] work here.

“I think a lot of the issues that we run into around Indigeneity, our rights, and being recognized as a people comes from how we were perceived back in the day… I can’t remember who I was speaking with, but I saw on eBay those little LEGO minifigs. They were dressed up like in the war bonnets, the Chief garb, and all this kind of stuff — the stereotypical representation of Indigeneity. For some reason, it’s all about the plains. They kind of got the rough end of things there, but it’s interesting to see because they’re not old looking toys. They’re new looking toys. What I found interesting about that is that you wouldn’t see, like, an Ethiopian Village playset. Right? Or a Palestinian village playset. Or whatever subjugated people’s playset. You wouldn’t see that, but for some reason it’s acceptable to have that presented through the lens of Indigenous folks and quote-unquote ‘Indians’.

“There’s a lot of troubling work back there. I encourage you to look through, challenge your assumptions, learn from what you’re seeing, have a nervous giggle, and just take it all in.”

The exhibition Assertion of Sovereignty and the animation The Last of Us are part of the convergent program RETURN TO WATER 2024.


The Comox Valley Art Gallery is grateful to operate on the Unceded Traditional Territory of the K’ómoks First Nations.

CVAG is honored to collaborate with artists, writers, guest curators, community partners + volunteers. We are grateful for the support of our members + donors.

This convergent program is made possible through the support of our FUNDERS: City of Courtenay, Canada Council for the Arts, BC Arts Council, Government of Canada, Province of BC, Comox Valley Regional District, Town of Comox | LOCAL SUPPORT: ABC Printing + Signs, SD71 Printshop, Sherwin Williams Paint Store, Hitec Screen Printing, Shine-Eze Ltd., BoomBright Media | COMMUNITY COLLABORATORS: CV/Arts, CVRD Connected By Water, Hand-In-Hand Nature Education, Curating Cleaner Waters, Kumugwe Cultural Society, MakeItZone, SD71 Aspire to Action, CVAG Youth Media Project, Teo Moon


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