Five Dials asked Sonny Assu to send us an omnivorous list of everything, or almost everything, he’s consumed in the previous month.
As far as my cultural diet goes, I like to keep everything as diverse as I can. I’m trying to consume what I can in a valuable way. I’m trying, you know.
A book I’m into now: The World We Make by N. K. Jemisin. It’s the second in a series that started with The City We Became.
The idea at the core is that cities around the world have their own avatars. One person is chosen to be the avatar for the city. The series takes place around New York and the adjacent area, so there’s an avatar for New York and for the different boroughs within New York – a Queens avatar, a Brooklyn avatar, and so on. The first book discusses how the boroughs come into their own and how one person becomes the new avatar for the city and, at the same time, has to deal with an extra-dimensional threat that wants to devour the avatars. In the second, Jemisin is diving into their connection to the other cities around the world.
Before that was a Haruki Murakami book: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I don’t run. I do not run. I’m very physically inactive. I appreciated the book though – the style, the beautiful aspects of the writing.
As an artist, I’m starting to understand the benefit of downtime and doing something that isn’t always linked to creativity. With my hobbies, for the longest time, I was always doing something creative, but now I’ve discovered the benefit of doing something else. So no, it didn’t motivate me to do any running, but it definitely motivated me to think about my work in a different way.
When I go to bookstores, I try and hit up the Indigenous book sections. I’ve got a fairly big collection of older Indigenous books; they’re either written by Indigenous people or they’re anthropology-adjacent books that include the old stereotypes of what people thought Indigenous people in North America were like in the past. With art books, the last one I bought was Robert Davidson’s latest, Echoes of the Supernatural: The Graphic Art of Robert Davidson. That book has become an inspiration.
Davidson and I have been working in parallel since I became a professional artist twenty years ago. He’s been a professional artist for a lot longer. It’s interesting to see how his work has influenced mine; we’re working in a parallel mode of abstraction.
I produced a series called ‘Longing’ that was turned into a book. It featured a series of cedar offcuts – rough pieces of wood I just happened to find. They looked like masks. I mounted them to museum quality standard and photographed them like portraits. I installed and housed them in places that are presumed to hold the authority on the definition of Indigenous art and who gets to be an Indigenous person. When I installed the masks at the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver for a summer exhibit, I placed them amongst the works in their permanent collection. It was an interesting way to enact an intervention with these traditional works.
My works have no features. They’re just pieces of cedar wood that happen to look like heads. When I stepped back and looked at the cedar ‘masks’ I found and installed, there was something interesting and poetic about the tree rings and the chainsaw marks. They gave the work its own personality. And the way I positioned them, the way the light caught them, and the way they sort of looked over these recognized objects of Northwest Coast culture, I felt there was a longing in the cedar to be part of that culture. But through colonization, these pieces didn’t have a chance to become objects of culture, like a dance mask or a spoon or a whistle or a rattle. This cedar didn’t get a chance to become a cultural object, but through my intervention I gave them a way to fulfil their desires.
I’ve been a big Star Trek fan for ever. The second series of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds has been a completely joyful, joyful experience. It’s a prequel to Kirk’s arrival as captain. It features the original Captain Pike. I can get really nerdy with this kind of stuff. These cultural products that were once considered counterculture have now become the driving forces of modern culture.
I probably watched a lot of the original series with Kirk and Spock as reruns as kids. Probably when I was at home sick from school or home by myself, probably on some small thirteen inch TV from the 70s, barely colour.
I really liked Silo, an Apple TV show where humanity, for some reason, has been placed in a missile silo buried in the ground. They’ve been there for hundreds of years. They don’t know how they got there, or why they were put there in the first place.
Here we are in a world where we have environmental disaster after environmental disaster. There’s a war going on in Ukraine. There are other wars going on all over the place. We’re on the precipice of destruction of our own society and a show like Silo could mirror what’s possible for us at some point in the future.
I’m more in the dystopian frame of mind these days. It’s just a reflection of where we are. As a kid watching Star Trek, I was following the utopian nature of Gene Roddenberry’s vision. Humanity, he thought, is going to come into the utopian vision of itself. As a teen, I was thinking, ‘Okay, this could happen. This could happen.’ But now, as a 48-year-old adult, I’m thinking: ‘It’s not going to happen. It’s not going to happen in my lifetime. I don’t know what’s going to happen in my kid’s lifetime.’
I don’t want to escape it. We need to focus on the depressive information, including in the entertainment we watch, but we also have to look for hopeful signs that humanity could be wriggling itself out of these dystopian depressive states. We have to go beyond what is being told to us and what is being sold to us, right?
Extrapolations is another very dystopian show. I remember waking up a couple days ago and seeing a meme on Instagram. I didn’t even follow up on it. It said that for the first time in Texas they’ve hit wet-bulb temperatures for humans. It was the first time ever in North America. Wet bulb is when it’s so hot and humid outside, no matter what you do to cool yourself down, you’re just not going to cool down. That phrase is used on the show. Screens flash: ‘It’s wet bulb time.’
TV these days doesn’t take on the rosy aspect of what TV was ten years ago, or even twenty years ago.
Comics are my kind of main form of reading right now. I’m really into the new Darth Vader series from Marvel. There’s a couple of different volumes of it. It feels like it’s filling in a lot of backstory. In my youth I was always thinking, ‘what is this character up to when they’re not on the screen?’ A lot of the Star Wars media is filling in those blanks.
Spiderman’s always been important. As a kid, I spent a lot of time in Campbell River, on the west coast of Canada, with my grandfather and family. They were involved in commercial fishing, so I practically grew up on a boat. Looking back at it now, that’s where my love of pop culture came into full force. There I was on my grandfather’s boat. I wasn’t working. I wasn’t hauling in fish. While they were hauling in a catch, I was eating candy bars and reading Spiderman.
These days, I’ve been reading a lot of my comics on the iPad. It’s immediate. It’s right there. I can take my entire collection with me if I want to.
But what I love about the actual physical comics is you get to open them up and touch the paper and smell the ink. It’s all the stuff that brings back these wafts of nostalgia, which is something I miss when not reading physical comics. With my recent paintings, I’ve learned to fill that void because I’m taking comic books and tearing them apart and collaging over them so I get the hint of nostalgia as I’m working.
What I do is I take comic book pages, I adhere them to the surface of the painting panel and then I overlay the specific forms and shapes from Northwest Coast, and specifically from Kwakwaka’wakw, art, which is where my culture comes from. I use the ovoid shape, split forms, U-shapes, S-shapes. All these come together to form an iconography of a stylized raven or a beaver or a bear or an eagle that represents our clan-based structure for individual communities.
There I was on my grandfather’s boat. I wasn’t working. I wasn’t hauling in fish. While they were hauling in a catch, I was eating candy bars and reading Spiderman.
But what I’m doing with my work is focusing on the ovoid and the individual aspects of what is known as form line, and abstracting it and breaking it apart. You’ll see a lot of abstract placements of shapes on the surface of the comics, which doesn’t really create any kind of specific narrative with the images itself. It’s pure abstraction and intuition and mark-making. But it’s all done in a hard-edged graphical style, which connects to what you see on the comic book pages. The illustrative style from the various artists making these comic books from back in the day gets overlaid with my iconography. An interesting symmetry emerges.
When I’m looking for material to use, I look for comic books that have specific relevance to me and to my nostalgia. I look for comic books or issues that contain characters that are relevant to me as an Indigenous person. As a kid, it wasn’t much of a draw for me. But I did recognize the Indigenous characters in the comic books I was reading. And I drew a lot of connection to them because of who I am. Now it’s become even more important because I recognize that representation does matter. Sometimes it feels like we’re confronted with white, blonde faces all the time, so it’s nice to be able to see people of colour and Black and Indigenous folks represented in these old pages.
When I’m looking for material to use, I look for comic books that have specific relevance to me and to my nostalgia. I look for comic books or issues that contain characters that are relevant to me as an Indigenous person.
I go through and pull out Native American or Indigenous characters. With my recent triptych there’s one panel that features a couple different pages of an aborigine X-Men-adjacent character called The Gatekeeper. I painted around him to highlight his presence.
There was a number of Native American characters that were present in the X-Men, including Warpath and Danielle Moonstar, a member of the New Mutants team. The New Mutants were important because they were the team of youth. They were teenagers, preteens, coming into the understanding of their power, mirroring what I was going through.
For another series, I’m breaking apart what I was told these comics were going to be worth. In the 90s, there was this era called the Speculative Boom where comic book manufacturers were producing number-one issues, new appearances, new teams, new characters or special, gatefold, stamped, collectible covers that you just had to get. We were told as collectors that these things will be worth something someday. But generally, comic books of that era are fairly easy to come by and unless they’re rare and highly graded, they’re not worth much of anything.
So I’ve been going out and collecting comics that were important to me from the era and destroying them and assigning new value to them through this process.
I have one series within my Speculative Boom series called ‘Works on Paper’. Instead of taking comic pages and adhering them to a panel and painting over top, with the ‘Works on Paper’, I’m actually cutting out various Indigenous Northwest Coast shapes from the comics and using them as a form of collage and construction on the paper.
I’ve got this one series titled ‘On the Warpath’. Warpath is the Native American superhero with super strength and super tracking abilities and all that stereotypical stuff. But I like to highlight him because ‘On the Warpath’ has got some interesting Native American themes that resonate with me.
Memes are part of my, you know, unfortunate daily ritual, too, scrolling on a screen and finding memes to show people. At the time, they can be so funny and poignant but because we consume so many of them, they don’t take up enough space in our brains to truly sink in. You’re scrolling, sending things left and right to friends and family. It becomes a flash in that moment, which is also very poetic because not everything has to be remembered and talked about in depth. That’s the beauty of memes. They become part of the moment, and we don’t have to live in that moment forever.
It’s always important for me to try and read graffiti when I come across it. I’m here in Campbell River on Vancouver Island. There’s a forest trail walk not too far away from where I live. I walk past a power station that’s set up to distribute power from a nearby dam. There’s a storage container outside that has been covered by various graffiti over the years. The graffiti has been painted over, again and again. They’re always trying to get rid of the latest. But then one person came along and wrote: ‘Now Someone Else Do a Public Art.’ It makes me laugh every time I pass it.
I have this programme called Pocket on my computer and on my device for storing articles that I thought were important or that I wanted to read later. But I got to the point where I was just collecting article after article that I’d never got around to reading. And so I’ve been really actively trying to only consume what I feel is important in that moment.
I remember this one article that I saved probably ten years ago. It was theorizing that the reason why we haven’t been contacted by aliens is because we have been contacted by aliens, but they decided that we were too backwater for them to include into the Galactic Empire.
Take a look at what’s going on now, especially with our politics and the divisions out there. If I was an alien, I wouldn’t want to come down here.
That article’s been with me for ten years. Once in a while I’ll go through and clean up the articles because I either haven’t read them or have read them and don’t need them anymore. I keep the alien article. Every time I see it, I think: ‘I’ll keep that one a little longer.’