Talking Back: Reconfiguring the Canadian Imaginary

Ellyn Walker

What a Great spot for a Walmart! from the Interventions on the Imaginary series (2014), Sonny Assu
Digital intervention on an Emily Carr painting

The colonization of images in order to create a new Canadian mythology is parasitic, requiring that the first-order meanings within native communities be drained. This is not an inclusive act, but an act predicated on our exclusion, or “otherness”. [1] 

Interventions on the Imaginary (2014-ongoing), the series of composite paintings by Vancouver-based artist Sonny Assu, talks back to dominant representations of Canada that have worked to portray the nation through the lens of settler-colonialism and perpetuate notions of “difference” in relation to whiteness. Being of Ligwilda’xw ancestry, Assu’s practice grapples with the politics of representation, exploring his Indigenous identity and positioning it as both nuanced and contemporary. He mixes such styles as appropriation, digital collage, intervention and tagging with Northwest Coast design to both confront and unhinge representations of colonialism in relation to land and art history. He does so in order to emphasize what art historian Marcia Crosby calls the “construction of the Imaginary Indian,” a Western notion that has positioned Indigenous peoples as inferior and, thus, as a vanishing race. This notion has plagued popular representations of Canada such as those made famous by the Group of Seven and Emily Carr, and has worked to picture the land as unoccupied and, thus, terra nullius. Through Assu’s appropriation of these art historical images, their juxtaposition with graphic Indigenous formline and satirical titling, Interventions on the Imaginary interrupts and ultimately unsettles (art) histories of colonization.

#photobombing the Dzunuḵ̓wa. She's gonna be mad. from the Interventions on the Imaginary series (2014), Sonny Assu
Digital intervention on an Emily Carr painting

Canonical paintings like those made by the Group of Seven, Tom Thomson and Emily Carr have constructed a Canadian imaginary based on the elision of whole groups of people from the landscape. Their images perpetuate Western notions of the land as unoccupied and awaiting conquer, wherein them one sees early Canadian landscapes void of living people. In Carr’s celebrated images, for instance, she evidences Indigeneity through depictions of decaying totems and abandoned longhouses. However, these objects reference the notion of the “Imaginary Indian,” an idea of Indigenous identity created by settlers for the purpose of settler-colonialism, which naively links the “Indian” to nature and ideas of prehistory. Crosby challenges Carr’s representations as “invest[ing] the ‘relics’ of her country, Canada, with a meaning that has to do with her national identity, not the national identity of the people who own the poles” [2]. She explains, “the induction of First Nations peoples’ history and heritage into institutions as a lost Canadian heritage [must] be considered within the context of the colonization of aboriginal land” [3]. Sadly, the international currency these kinds of images hold—as popular postcards, for instance—reflects the global impact of colonial narratives and the ongoing need for decolonization.

Assu recognizes this urgency. In the series, he carefully selects well-known paintings that uphold myths of the “dying,” “historical,” “savage” or “lowly” Indian, and Indigenizes them with digital interventions. His choices begin with iconic Canadian paintings like Paul Kane’s Below the Cascades, Columbia River with Indians Fishing (1846), Carr’s Indian Church (1929), and later expand to include European masterworks as well, such as Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon (1907). With his selection, Assu points to the impact these images have had on understandings of nationalism in the West, a context in which the artist himself is also implicated. However, rather than disavowing these images and their constructed histories, Assu appropriates their tidy visual narratives and interrupts them through the use of graphic Indigenous pictorialism, which allows him to complicate how one views and in turn understands these images.

Re-invaders from the Interventions on the Imaginary series (2014), Sonny Assu
Digital intervention on an Emily Carr painting

One of the most recognizable visual styles of Northwest Coast Indigenous art is formline, which contains ovoid, U and S forms, and features continuous curvilinear lines that outline figures, fill shapes and abstract designs. Assu’s use of formline within the series works to contrast the genres of Western art history painting that he appropriates, where the juxtaposition of seemingly disparate practices and worldviews (Indigenous v. non-Indigenous) becomes a political act. In doing so, Assu makes visible an important practice of Indigenous artistic innovation and cultural resilience, prioritizing it over Western narratives of settlement and “progress” depicted in the appropriated paintings’ backgrounds. His use of bold colours makes the ovoids all the more visible, the graphic neon colour pairings interrupting and unsettling the landscapes they hover over. For instance, in Re-invaders (2014), which plays off of Carr’s Indian Church, Assu inserts neon pink and purple ovoid and U-shapes over the church, suspended like space invaders as the title suggests. The fact that the formline hovers over the historic white church—a likely site of residential schooling, abuse and familial dislocation within West Coast colonial history—reflects the fact that Indigenous peoples have survived and remain resilient despite centuries of violence and ongoing oppressions. Like a graffiti tag on a wall, the formline attaches a signature of Indigenous survivance on the landscape, or what Anishinaabe scholar Gerald Vizenor explains as a radically active presence that moves beyond mere survival [4].

Spaced Invaders from the Interventions on the Imaginary series (2014), Sonny Assu
Digital intervention on an Emily Carr painting

Within the series, Assu thoughtfully gives each work a satirical title that speaks back to past and present representations of the land as terra nullius. For instance, What a Great spot for a Walmart! (2014) suggests that land continues to be colonized now, through processes of capitalism. Choke on an Ovoid (2014) communicates more blatant sentiments of resistance through its reference to both the written and visual language of Indigenous formline. Like with his series of Chilkat paintings begun in 2013, Assu uses hashtags and chat acronyms in his titles, such as #photobombing the Dzunuḵ̓wa. She's gonna be mad. (2014) and Tell Chakotay that we'll brb (2014) to call attention to practices of remix culture. Furthermore, through the use of sarcasm, Assu challenges viewers to unsettle their own thinking.

As Crosby states, “to accept the myths created about Carr and her relationship with ‘the Indians’ is to accept and perpetuate the myths out of which her work arose” [5]. Assu’s re-imagined paintings resist their settler-colonial origins through the strategic use of appropriation, juxtaposition and titling, and are reworked into far more nuanced and inclusive imaginaries. However, his images also make clear that imaginaries are hardly inclusive; they are provisional. The diverse and complex ways that lands (and bodies) have been claimed through processes like colonization, slavery, diaspora and now gentrification challenge the ways in which one represents land as a stable and shared history. Rather, land and its cultural geographies have been continuously pictured in relation to margin and centre, a strategy that upholds notions of “difference.” In Crosby’s acclaimed essay, “The Construction of the Imaginary Indian,” she reminds us that “difference” has become a commodified object. Importantly, Assu’s images remind us that difference is also a process of resistance.



[1] Crosby, Marcia. “The Construction of the Imaginary Indian.” Beyond Wilderness: The Group of Seven, Canadian Identity, and Contemporary Art. Montreal/Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007, 222.

[2] Ibid., 220.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Vizenor, Gerald. Fugitive Poses: Native American Indian Scenes of Absence and Presence. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000, 15.

[5] Crosby, 221.

Ellyn Walker is a writer and curator based in Toronto, on Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee and Wendat land. Her practice focuses on modes of cross-cultural engagement within the arts as potential site for resistance, re-imagination and conciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. Her writing has been published in Prefix Photo, PUBLIC Journal, Fuse Magazine, the Journal of Curatorial Studies and C Magazine, amongst others. Ellyn is currently a PhD candidate in Cultural Studies at Queen's University.