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Humans of Campbell River: Sonny Assu

Humans of Campbell River is a collaboration between Destination Campbell River and Bluetree Photography. Showcasing the stories of those who call our coastal community home. Each week we deep dive into a new story and the connections between people and place. 

Listen, most people know me as an artist, but did you know my life could have been dramatically different today if I stuck to my life’s ambitions as a 10-year-old. In all honesty, I can’t remember the name I had picked out for myself, but I wanted to be in the WWF real bad. No, not that one, I like animals, and I want to see them kept alive, and all, but the WWF before it became the WWE. Now that I’m tripping down memory lane, I even named my pet salamander Ricky the Dragon, after the infamous Ricky “the Dragon” Steamboat.

So yeah, I wanted to be a wrestler. I mean, it’s not hard to imagine; I did turn out to be somewhat of a giant after all. Lol, I remember this one interview I did a few years ago where I was described as having the stature and general appearance of a rugby player. It’s interesting to hear people’s assumptions of yourself. Especially when you don’t fit the mould.

“Oh, you’re Sonny Assu? I thought you’d be older.”

“Oh, you’re Sonny Assu? I thought you’d be shorter.”

“Oh, you’re Sonny Assu? I thought you’d be… uh, you know….” This is the part where they want to say browner but then catch themselves and hang out in uncomfortable silence for a second or two.

I had a recent exhibition opening in Vancouver, where my good pal Geoff was in attendance. And again, for the seemingly thousandth time, someone went up to him and asked if he was me. I get it, you go to an exhibit of an acclaimed Indigenous artist, and you expect a brown dude with long hair. And that is precisely what Geoff is, but homie is actually from India. A legit Indian. Geoff walks up to me at the opening, giggling away. “Dude, it happened again.”

“What, someone thought you were me again?”

“Yeah,” he laughs,” But I felt bad because I was talking to someone, and they were patiently waiting their turn.”

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So, yes, it is me, Sonny Assu. I am an artist, and I currently live in unceded Ligwiłda’xw territory, the homelands of my ancestors. I moved here with my wife Sara, daughter Lily and two cats, Toast and Beans, in 2016. Since then, we’ve acquired a dog named Boomer Diamond and two more humans, Eli and Mia! It’s been great living here, and I’m happy we moved here when we did. My gran was always trying to get me to move here, but being raised in the ‘burbs and living in Vancouver and Montreal, I was a city-ndn at heart. But things change when you have a family. Your priorities shift, and your focus narrows. I couldn’t have lived here in my 20s or 30s. I needed the city for my career then. Now that I feel I can really work from anywhere, that anywhere is here.

What is beautiful is my proximity to my family and my territory.

What is beautiful is I get to form a closeness with my culture that my city life couldn’t afford.

What is beautiful is that I get to wake, walk and work where my ancestors did.

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So yeah, by the time I was 10, I wanted to be a wrestler. By the time I was in my early teens, I wanted to be a comedian. When I hit my creative stride in Jr high, I wanted to be an actor. Actually, I remember when we had our high school graduation ceremony, the principal was reading off everyone’s ambitions for their next steps. “Sonny Assu wants to work in special effects for tv and film.” I was heavily involved in both theatre and visual arts, and in hindsight, my hasty, scribbled view of my future made sense.

After {expletive deleted} around for a summer… or a whole year and a half… I decided I should try out that post-secondary thing. I made an appointment for an intake meeting at the Vancouver Film School for a portfolio review. At that time, I really didn’t have a portfolio; it was just a pile of sketchbooks. So I grabbed what I thought was best and hopped on the Skytrain towards downtown Vancouver.

That meeting was weird, man. I sat in this dark office, waiting for the advisor to come and get me. I was nervous. I had no clue what to expect. This was a for-profit education program, so I mostly thought they’d just give my sketchbook a once over and hand me an application. Boy, was I wrong.

After flipping through my sketchbook, which at the time mostly revolved around my love of the 90s gem, The Crow, the advisor turned to me and said, “Listen, this is some (a brief dramatic pause) interesting stuff. But look at your lines; they are all sketchy.”

“Well, yeah, it’s a sketchbook.”

“Right, but you need to improve your line work before you consider this program.” The advisor said.

“Well, I do want to go to school to learn. I’m hoping to…” this is where I was about to give the pitch of ‘Sonny Assu, wants to work in special effects for tv and film’ that my principal so eloquently read off an impassioned note card. But the advisor interrupted me in true 90s yuppy-Yaletown fashion.

“You’re really going to need to improve your line work before you even think of applying here.”

And that was it. No lube. Just rough-ride those expectations straight to the dumpster.

Kids, all I can say is, never give up your dreams

2022 marks the 20th anniversary of receiving my BFA from the Emily Carr University and the 5th year of receiving my MFA from Concordia University. If education is your milestone, that also marks a 20-year career in the visual arts. Art school not only gave me the technical and conceptual skills to make and think about my work, but it gave me critical thinking skills that I can apply to just about everything in life.

Plus, art school was a blast! I got to meet some cool people who turned into lifelong friends, and I was able to explore and make some weird sh!t. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go watch The Crow and rekindle my love of sad vengeance clowns.

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If you were to combine the solo and group exhibits I’ve had over my career, it would total well over a hundred exhibitions. I feel pretty lucky to be able to do what I do.

I’ve been in exhibits across Canada, the US, and the UK! I’ve been to Ottawa many times. When I was younger, I felt it was neat to visit the colonial construct’s head of operations. Now that I’m older and arguably wiser, that novelty has worn off.

I went to Ottawa in 2009 for Beat Nation and Blue Like an Orange; both exhibits were part of the BC Scene Festival that highlighted BC arts and culture. This is where I met @brendantang for the first time and where I gave him the name “Two-Beers” <3. It was most likely the start of our nerdy bromance.

Speaking of bromance, I was at the Saw Gallery’s party at one point during the opening night. I was standing around having a good ole-time just shooting the shit, laughing and joking around with some new pals. There was talk of a joint (GASP! It wasn’t legal then…), so I cozied up to the circle ready to puff-puff-pass. I observed the tobacco content of their joints out east and mentioned that we don’t do that in BC. Some cultural exchange whilst partying is always a good thing. I said, “It makes it a bit rough.” With a chuckle, I added, “My delicate lungs weren’t built for tobacco.”

“Well, you could always shot-gun-it.” Someone said.
“My knowledge of shotgunning is related to beers,” I said. “So, this is new to me.”

“Here, let me show you.” This one guy said. “Ok, so lean in towards the end of the joint and suck in when you see the smoke.” With that, he placed the lit end of the roach-like joint in his mouth and started to blow. I leaned in, pursed my lips and began to suck in the stream of smoke that was flowing out the other end.

Just then…

a woman was walking over to the bar behind us. “Aw, isn’t that cute?” She said. “They’re kissing!”. The shot-gunner chuckled, inhaling the joint! Seemingly in slow motion, a balloon of smoke came billowing out of his mouth, with the joint rocketing out of the middle like a NASA shuttle launch. Hitting me right between the eyes, it dinged off my forehead and into the abyss of the darkened courtyard.

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The Challenging Tradition Series (2002) was the first body of work that used iconography from comic books and pop culture. 2002 will mark the 20th anniversary of that work, which I see as the series that helped launch my career. In 2017, for Ready Player Two, I started the Speculator Boom series, which was my return to the importance of comics in my work.

On display until October 9th at the Equinox Gallery in Vancouver is my solo exhibit titled Omnibus. It’s a new suite of paintings in the Speculator Boom series, but I’ve gone full-on 80s and 90s vibes for many of the colour palettes.

Thanks to the Humans of Campbell River and Nycky-jay for featuring me for this series. It’s been a blast to think of my life and rekindle the memories of the moments that shaped who I am.

Gila’kasla

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