Campbell River artist Sonny Assu has been awarded one of the most prestigious Indigenous art fellowships in North America.
Assu was named one of five recipients of the 2021 Eiteljorg Contemporary Art Fellowship, awarded every two years by the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis, Indiana – the home of one of the finest collections of First Nations art in the world.
“It’s really exciting to be selected this year,” Assu says.
“It’s wonderful to be recognized and be able to give back a little bit, too, because my community is part of my art, and to be recognized like this also recognizes my community.
“Everyone is proud of me for not only the recognition of me and my art but also the fact that I’m representing my community and my culture in a very positive way.”
It’s actually not the first time he’s applied for the fellowship. But in a strange way, he’s kind of glad it’s the first time he’s received it.
“The first time I applied was back in the early-to-mid-2000s,” he says. “My career was definitely taking off at that point at a pretty steady incline. But looking back on it, I like the fact that I didn’t get it, because in being awarded it now I’ve had a chance to develop my practice over a longer period and be coming at it in a more mature way.
“It allows me to understand the weight of the award and what it means.
“It definitely will give me more of a direction now than it probably would have before,” he continues.
“I think when I was younger, it would have been more of an ego thing, whereas now it’s more of a humbling experience and I can accept the award being in a different, more positive personal space. Now it’s really an opportunity to reflect on where my work is and where it can go.”
And with a little bit of a financial cushion, thanks to this award – and its $25,000 USD honorarium – he has the chance to explore a bit as he continues to move his art forward.
“They’re going to bring down a bunch of my work for the exhibit and then buy something from me for their collection, so it’s not just the award money, but also a purchase, which is great,” he says. “It’s nice to be able to have a chunk of change in the bank to be able to fund future projects and explore things further.
“Maybe I take on a new medium. Maybe it’s a bigger piece. Maybe it allows me to experiment. Maybe I can fail – in a good way.
“As an artist, you need to be able to fail sometimes so you can grow, and having some money in the bank allows you the ability to focus on something that’s a passionate response as opposed to making something you think you can sell.”
And while most Eiteljorg fellowships involve a big party to celebrate the artists at the museum itself, Assu isn’t sure this one is going to go that way.
“They’re kind of playing it by ear right now,” he says. “Normally, everyone would go to Indianapolis to attend the opening of the exhibit and have a big celebration and whatnot.
“Because of what’s happening with the pandemic – I’m being optimistic that we’re coming towards being in the clear with the vaccines coming and all that – so hopefully by the time early fall comes around we’ll have a better idea about whether we’re going to go down to attend it, or if there’s even a thing to attend,” he adds with a chuckle.
But no matter what’s involved, he’ll have been proud to have been a part of it.
“I consider myself very fortunate, because there are so many deserving artists out there who have the same talents, drive and desire to make and create and teach,” he says. “It’s certainly an honour.”