Credit: Sonny Assu, 1UP (detail), 2016. Photo by Edward Westerhuis.
Sonny Assu: 1UP
This bold digital artwork draws attention to the histories of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.
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Sonny Assu’s 1UP is a site-specific installation for Surrey Art Gallery’s offsite programming venue UrbanScreen. Located on the west wall of Chuck Bailey Recreation Centre, UrbanScreen is situated on traditional Kwantlen territory. As a Ligwilda’xw/Kwakwaka’wakw person recently relocated to South Surrey, Sonny Assu “tags” the colonial landscape to bring attention to the histories of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.
As a colloquial term in gaming culture, "1UP" grants an extra life to a player through an achievement or item. Drawing on this term, Assu’s artwork 1UP becomes a metaphor for how the First People have risen up for rights within a system that was designed to oppress and assimilate them. 1UP merges 80s and 90s retro gaming iconography from his childhood with Northwest Coast formline elements.
He writes: "1UP is a nostalgic nod to my childhood. I’d spend hours locked away in my room or a cousin’s basement, playing Sonic The Hedgehog, WonderBoy, or Altered Beast. I’d hoard quarters, normally spent in the arcade, and raid my grandfather’s change dish just to get the latest 8-bit or 16-bit games, wrapped in the iconic Sega grid packaging.
As an ephemeral mural, 1UP draws on the theories and explorations within my larger body of work. Addressing my thoughts on decolonization, the large foreground shape invokes notions of graffiti, “tagging” the colonial landscape to become a metaphor that speaks to the resurgence for Indigenous rights and titles."
Assu’s 1UP relates to his larger body of work, specifically his Longhouse, Chilkat, and Interventions on the Imaginary series, which investigates his theories of abstracting abstraction, the recreation of language, and his work addressing decolonization. Recognizing art from the Northwest Coast is a form of abstraction that inspired artists from the Surreal and Cubist movements, Assu witnesses this gaze and influence by making working in response. With 1UP, Assu seeks to comment on the land, honouring and making visible the parallel narratives of Indigenous people, and the histories of this place, now known as City Centre in Surrey.
Sonny Assu thanks Mark Mushet for adding the video elements into 1UP.
This exhibition is a part of the 2016 Capture Photography Festival.
1UP is accompanied by an essay by Ellyn Walker, as part of the Surrey Art Gallery Presents series. Ellyn Walker is a writer and curator based in Toronto. Her work explores the decolonizing potential of intersectionality through an art historical and curatorial lens. She is currently a PhD candidate in Cultural Studies at Queen's University.
About the Artist
Through museum interventions, large-scale installations, sculpture, photography, printmaking, and painting, Sonny Assu merges the aesthetics of Indigenous iconography with a pop art sensibility in an effort to address contemporary, political, and ideological issues. His work often focuses on Indigenous issues and rights, consumerism, branding, new technologies, and the ways in which the past has come to inform contemporary ideas and identities. Assu infuses his work with wry humour to open the dialogue towards the use of consumerism, branding, and technology as totemic representation. Within this, his work deals with the loss of language, loss of cultural resources, and the effects of colonization upon the Indigenous people of North America.
Assu’s work has been accepted into the National Gallery of Canada, Seattle Art Museum, Vancouver Art Gallery, Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, Burke Museum at the University of Washington, Hydro-Québec, Loto-Québec, and in various other public and private collections across Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom.
Assu, Ligwilda’xw (We Wai Kai) of the Kwakwaka’wakw nations, graduated from Emily Carr University (2002) and received their distinguished alumni award in 2006. He also received the BC Creative Achievement Award in First Nations Art in 2011 and was longlisted for the Sobey Art Award in 2012, 2013, and 2015. Assu is an MFA candidate at Concordia University, and he currently works and lives in South Surrey.
Curator: Alison Rajah
Origin of Exhibition: Surrey Art Gallery