March 12, 2022

From an oily dinosaur to rethinking John Cabot: Come to N.L.’s most vibrant art exhibition | CBC News

Gerald Beaulieu’s work Extinction, in Upper Amherst Cove, is one of the many open-air art exhibits at the 2021 Bonavista Biennale. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

It takes years of planning to pull off the Bonavista Biennale, the contemporary art festival held on Newfoundland’s Bonavista Peninsula every other summer.

But the installations currently dotting its rugged landscape have a prescient feel, as if its curators predicted well in advance what would be dominating headlines and people’s minds this August.

There are artists grappling with Indigenous rights to natural resources, casting a critical eye over colonialism, and tackling the urgency of the climate crisis.

“I think artists, contemporary artists in particular, are seers,” said co-curator Matthew Hills. 

“They can anticipate these issues farther ahead of the critical discourse… the topicalness, the responsiveness of these artists and their work, is sort of in some ways the point of the biennale.”

Those moments of the biennale — so named after the Venice Biennale, a premiere global event, “like the art Olympics,” said Hills — also mix with another of the festival’s key goals: to engage the surrounding community with work from some of Canada’s most notable artists.

Some pieces in 2021 deal with the untold role of women in the inshore fishery, or the hidden history of traditional houses.

“[The festival] is really one of community collaboration, responding to the all things that make the peninsula, make our province special, in terms of culture,” said Hills.

Here are some of the 25 installations to check out over the course of the festival, which runs until Sept. 12.

A life-sized dinosaur, with a message

Beaulieu’s life-sized, mechanized sculpture weighs about a tonne. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

One of the Biennale’s most striking works for 2021 is Gerald Beaulieu’s Extinction: a life-sized Albertosaurus skeleton the artist conceived and built in his Charlottetown backyard over the course of eight months.

Beaulieu lugged the literally one-tonne sculpture across the ferry and assembled it in a field of wildflowers and solitude in Upper Amherst Cove. There, the dinosaur mimics an oil pumpjack’s movement as it creaks up and down, its skull dipping into a drum of crude oil (in this case, a benign mix of water, colouring and thickener).

“Dealing with climate change, it was the idea of extinction — that, if you don’t adapt, that’s the inevitable reality, and that’s the challenge we face today,” Beaulieu said.

Environmental themes ripple through Beaulieu’s work — another of his works, giant crows made out of rubber, is on display at Port Rexton — as he hopes art can add to climate conversations.

“With a visual impact, you can kind of distill a whole bunch of information and make an emotional impact on people. And that can resonate with them, probably more easier than reading an essay or a book,” he said.

A new look at John Cabot’s landfall

Part of Logan MacDonald’s work Bodies on a Beach uses phrases from John Cabot’s 1497 expedition that reference signs of human settlement. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

Cruising past Bonavista’s Long Beach, mysterious phrases top its 1.5-kilometre perimeter fence. Among them: “a site where a fire had been made” and “ochre.”

The phrases form part of Logan MacDonald’s work Bodies On The Beach, with each English phrase used — some Beothuk words also sprinkle the fence — drawn from John Day’s observations of human traces in the area. Day was aboard John Cabot’s 1497 expedition aboard the ship The Matthew, touted as the first post-Vikings European contact in North America. According to local tradition, that happened in Bonavista, an event much heralded in the area with statues and a replica ship.

MacDonald had originally planned a work interacting with the town’s Cabot statue, but after being denied access, pivoted to the beach fence and drew on his Cabot research.

“If landfall is a recognition of European colonization, what are ways in which we can honour precolonial human histories and activities?” said MacDonald, a member of the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation with mixed Indigenous and settler heritage.

The words disrupt the horizon, and MacDonald said he hopes the work sparks thoughts about the area’s human history beyond what’s bronzed, with “larger discussions around our public memory and what monuments and what histories we are protecting.”

Logan MacDonald’s work is at Long Beach in Bonavista. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

A home turned inside out

Ever wondered what’s going on in your neighbour’s house? Artist Marcia Huyer indulges that everyday voyeurism with her work Strata  — a mural that re-imagines two entire sides of a two-storey biscuit box house. Huyer and a team of volunteers scraped off the house’s peeling paint and replaced it with painted versions of peeling wallpaper, each design sourced from wallpaper found on the Bonavista area. 

Marcia Huyer, farthest right, and a team of volunteers spent days transforming the house in Duntara. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

“When you’re inside a house, you’re always looking outside. When you’re walking by a house, you’re always thinking of the interior space,” said Huyer, from Corner Brook.

“Like, what’s going on in that home? Or what are the stories that are happening at that moment? So [my mural is] flipping that and turning it inside out.”

Huyer’s paint job freshens up an unoccupied home currently awaiting a renovation. 

When the festival ends, her work will remain until the house renovation’s start, with the idea of watching the mural weather fitting in to Huyer’s aim to combine interior and exterior worlds.

Huyer’s work Strata will stay up past the festival’s end to weather in the elements until the house is renovated by its owner. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

Electricity and Indigenous rights

The flickering of 160 lightbulbs in Caroline Monnet and Ludovic Boney’s piece Hydro is meant to be mesmerizing, but the Quebec-based duo also hope that their piece draws people in to consider larger issues than a simple lightshow.

“This installation was really to reflect about our consumption and relationship to electricity, and how electricity is often delivered very elegantly to our houses and we take it for granted,” said Monnet.

“But also how, you know, consumption of electricity is also contaminating waters around the world, and especially in Quebec.”

Some 160 lightbulbs are part of the installation Hydro, by Quebec-based artists Ludovic Boney and Caroline Monnet. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

The lights are timed to a soundtrack of electrical pops and fizzes, along with excerpts from a 1992 speech from Matthew Coon Come, then the grand chief for the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee, speaking out against the James Bay hydroelectric project that would have flooded tracts of Cree and Inuit territory had protests not halted its progress.

The parallels to hydroelectric development in Labrador abound, along with the current court battles of the Innu Nation. Part of Hydro is meant to reflect upon decades of infringement upon Indigenous rights, said Monnet, who is mixed settler-Anishinaabe, with Boney from the Huron-Wendat First Nation.

“Not much has changed, actually, over the years, and I think now we’re at a time where there’s a lot of standing up for our own rights, as First Nations. And I’m hoping this piece is one step closer to raising awareness around these issues,” she said.

The art piece is hanging, appropriately, in the Union Electric Building in Port Union. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

Ludovic Boney and Caroline Monnet. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

Embroidery and the inshore fishery

The black-cloaked fish flake stands out on Bonavista’s waterfront, with an indistinct scrawl beckoning a closer inspection that reveals the embroidered names of women. 

Getting up close to Robyn Love’s work Unhistoric Acts was part of the artist’s intent, and she looks to honour the women of the inshore fishery in the decades well before modern processing.

For her work Unhistoric Acts, Robyn Love covered two fish flakes in fabric, one entirely in black. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

“The women in the communities did the vast majority of the work on the fish flakes, processing the cod, in addition to all their other duties. But this is not something that has really ever been really honoured, or even acknowledged,” she said.

“In fact, it was very hard to find out this information. There’s hundreds of books written about the men out on the water, but there’s very little written about what women did as part of the inshore fishery.”

Love is based on the north shore of the Bay of Islands. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

Love took her names from the 1935 Bonavista census, and recruited a few local women in the community to help with the embroidery, using the same cursive of that handwritten document.

The name Mary was clearly a popular one in 1935, and for each Mary Love and her volunteers stitched, they did so in red. That was one way to acknowledge the Indigenous women of the area who would have gone unrecognized or assimilated in the census and larger culture, said Love.

The name Mary was so chosen because it was given to Demasduit, a Beothuk woman captured in Newfoundland in 1819 and renamed Mary March.

Love and her volunteers used red to stitch the name Mary, a subtle nod to Indigenous women in the area. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

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