Coppers & Comics Sans


Sonny Assu’s new series of mixed media paintings is a richly layered confection where comics merge with traditional forms to address some familiar themes. Comics were a major part of Sonny’s teen years and combined with his exploration of the Kwakwakaʼwakw art, mythos and social structures of his heritage, a mash-up was inevitable. Omnibus is it. Playful, accessible and bursting with colour, it offers a new spin on the connections between past and present ideas of status and value, between a perennial 20th Century commercial art form and the deep traditions of coastal indigenous communities.

Photo by Mark Mushet.

These new works represent a continuation and evolution of his Speculator Boom series which touched on the comic book world’s practice of creating “collectable” comics which were designed solely to cash in among speculators. And the frequently recurring motif of the copper shield form, partially cut out and overlaying comic book spreads, makes clear reference to traditional modes of status and exchange values.

Seeing as how my last brush with comics goes back to the 1970s (with Heavy Metal and the work of Mobius) I needed to catch myself up with Sonny on this aspect of the work. “Usually, when comics are published, they are sold as single issues. Then they started making the trade paper-back, now referred to as a “collected edition”, which collects the single issues that make up an overall story arch. Some people will wait for these to come out so they can suck up the story all at once instead of waiting for the single issue publishing cycle to run its course. Then an Omnibus is like a mega-trade paperback, bringing the single collected editions together in an even bigger collection. I made the mistake of buying The Walking Dead Omnibus #1 before moving to Montreal, thinking it would be a good plane read. Fucking thing was 8 pounds! I packed it in a  box!”

Briefly, the copper shield form (or “coppers”) originated in the north, in what is now Alaska, the panhandle and Northern BC. In Kwakwala, T´łaḵwa is the word for copper. Through a series of wars, trades and potlatches, the copper and it’s form would have come down the coast. But by the time of contact, it would have been deeply ingrained in Kwak society.

The shields, with their distinct “T” shape dividing three painted or engraved panels, were used extensively by the Kwakwaka’wakw, Haida, Tlighit and others (collectively known as Northwest Coastal peoples) through potlatch ceremonies and came to symbolize and confer wealth and status. Sometimes they were broken or cut to symbolize social, familial or political rifts. They would then continue their journey with parts missing, embedded with histories of rifts and healing.

The ritual use of coppers continues to this day. One of the most notable “breakings of the copper” in recent memory was when Beau Dick travelled from Alert Bay to both Victoria and Ottawa to effectively shame the government over its broken relationship with indigenous peoples. And, as Sonny tells me, “Coppers were also broken for shits and giggles. Chiefs would boast about their wealth and actively destroy parts of them to demonstrate how wealthy they are!”

Like the more speculative creations in the comic book industry, counterfeit copper shields were soon made in Victoria by white settlers. They were sold whole, imagined as perfect shield forms (like the pristine “collectors” comics) and designed to accrue value in an emerging and exploitative market indifferent to the cultural significance to the indigenous communities the forms were taken from.

Photo by Rachel Topham

Of course comics, too, are prized as units of exchange and symbols of status among kids. They often feature tales of empowerment, where forces of good battle against against myriad injustices, where characters have supernatural powers often linked to the natural world. In other words; the stuff of many a legend or origin story. Several of the comics chosen here have indigenous references built into the storylines. And those comics, when not being hoarded or designed for speculative purposes, could have unpredictable journeys and effects as they are passed around or traded.

At the opening of Omnibus. Photo by Mark Mushet.

Omnibus puts all of these pieces in a contemporary pot and gives it a good stir. It’s tempting to try reading some of the comic panels but the overlain shields, ovoid and other motifs render the works more as palimpsests, offering only tantalizing glimpses of the narratives contained within. Perhaps it’s best to enjoy them as beautiful objects conflating all of these things and take them forward in our memory as fragments that can be reassembled in the future.

Omnibus ran from September 11th to October 9th, 2021 at the Equinox Gallery