By Penelope Smart, Curator, Thunder Bay Art Gallery

Artist: Sonny Assu (Ligwilda’xw Kwakwaka’wakw)
Title: Billy and the Chiefs: The Complete Banned Collection
Date: 2015
Medium: Acrylic on hide
Purchased in part with the support of the Elizabeth L. Gordon Art Program, a program of the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation and administered by the Ontario Arts Foundation. Purchased with the support of the Canada Council for the Arts Acquisition Assistance program. Additional support from private donations. Partially donated by the artist.

In this image, an elk hide drum sits on a turntable in the artist’s studio. This drum, or record, is one out of a collection of 67 drums in the installation Billy and the Chiefs: The Complete Banned Collection by artist Sonny Assu (Ligwilda’xw Kwakwaka’wakw). Installed along an entire length of the Thunder Bay Art Gallery wall, these multi-coloured drums create a frequency, a hum.

This installation was inspired by the album Indian Music of the Pacific Northwest Coast, recorded by Dr. Ida Halpern during the latter years of the potlatch ban (1947–1953). This album holds over 300 ceremonial Northwest Coast songs, including songs sung by Assu’s great-grandfather, Chief Billy Assu. Assu was captivated by the idea that, during that ban, his great-grandfather was allowed to sing these songs for the sake of anthropological preservation but was unable to legally practice the culture outside of these recording sessions. Each drum can be “played,” or spun, on a record player.

View the entire installation at the gallery as part of The World We Know: New Acquisitions to the Permanent Collection, which runs April 8–June 12.