Robert Davidson has opened the door for younger artists to integrate their history and longstanding customs into contemporary art movements. Like Davidson, Kwakwaka‘wakw artists, Sonny Assu and Steve Smith are inheritors of the ‘formline’ art tradition, defined by a complex stylistic vocabulary of shapes, geometrics and topographies, historically employed in totem poles, house fronts and transformational masks. Reshaping the formline in the face of the personal and political, artist Steve Smith individualizes his tribal identity, while Sonny Assu elides Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakwak practices and Pop Art, challenging corporate and nation-state colonialism.
In the tradition of mentorship, Steve Smith was originally taught by his father. Painting his father’s carvings, his work was meant to pass as his father’s. When he surpassed his mentor, and his ‘self’ entered into his work, he became a contemporary artist. Today, these origins remain the foundation beneath bold experiments in form and colour. Smith interprets formlines through the changes and challenges of personal history. He credits a recent heart attack and the visions experienced during a triple bypass surgery for altering his palette from the red, green and blacks of Northwest Pacific indigenous art to a polyphony of colour.
Sonny Assu, graduate of Emily Carr College of Art and Design, uses painting, sculpture, large scale installations, digital constructions and photography to challenge monolithic commercial culture. ‘Consumerism, branding, and technology are new modes of totemic representation,’ writes Assu. Exploring the effects of colonisation on the Indigenous people of North America –loss of land, language and cultural resources – Assu deconstructs perceived identities and overturns the myth of the virgin continent and its vanished peoples. His digital series, Interventions on the Imaginary, imposes the traditional formline on pre-existing narratives, challenging colonial depictions of the receding Indian and the empty continent. Like alien spaceships, neon formlines hover above early colonial landscapes, interrupting the imperialistic tale of the ‘other’ and inverting the gaze.