BY: Erika Thorkelson
Vancouver has changed a lot over the past decade. Nowhere is this more visible than in the former warehousing district that is now Olympic Village, where a new tower seems to appear every day. Built in 2018, Allied’s 2233 Columbia Street may be part of that building boom, but thanks to a mural by Ligwiłda’xw of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nations interdisciplinary artist Sonny Assu titled Dance as Though the Ancestors Are Watching, it’s also a reminder to think about how we relate to both the future and the past.
Though he’d done a great deal of site-specific work before, Assu was hesitant about the extra-large format when he was first approached by the Vancouver Mural Festival for this project. But working with a crew of experienced artists, he found the transition surprisingly easy. “I just had to scale it up and take into account the various features of the building,” he explains.
The mural began as poster riffing on mid-century travel advertisements, drawn from Assu’s own collection of classic magazine ads featuring stereotypical depictions of Indigenous people and life. The mural’s inspiration may have been generic, but its imagery is deeply singular to the artist and his community. Its most prominent feature is a large white outline of a thunderbird—from Assu’s own family crest. The landscape at the bottom, as well as the buttons running up the centre of the building, represent the mountains near his home in Campbell River, B.C. To initiate a conversation on wealth and justice, he integrated symbols representing coppers, shield-like shapes that have a deep meaning within the potlatch culture of the Kwakwaka’wakw people, “They symbolize, amongst other things, the wealth of a Chief,” says Assu.
As the neighbourhood grows and changes, Assu hopes the mural will guide people to reflect on how other generations might view the choices we make today. “It’s really a check and balance for yourself,” he says, “to make sure you carry yourself in a way that will make your ancestors proud.”