Sobey Art Award 2021: Rémi Belliveau
Acadie is central to Rémi Belliveau’s art, whether they are exploding its myths or questioning the basis for its construction. Thus, it is important to know something about this place, which offers a sense of belonging despite its unclear borders, in order to understand their work. Acadie is situated in Mi'kma'ki, the unceded territory of the Mi'kmaq people. The first French settlers made their home there, on the marshy land bordering the Bay of Fundy (once known as La Baie française, or French Bay), in Nova Scotia, in eastern Canada. In the early 18th century, when France ceded parcels of colonized land to England, French-speaking settlers, by then identifying as Acadians, wished to remain neutral in the ongoing colonial conflicts and refused to pledge allegiance to the British Crown. This unaligned status posed a threat in the eyes of the English authorities, who used military force to eliminate Acadian communities. Between 1755 and 1763, entire villages were razed: livestock were slaughtered, houses burned, and the Acadian population gathered, placed on boats and dispersed on either side of the Atlantic – in American colonies, France and Great Britain. Some resisted and fought back; others went into hiding or immigrated to places where they would be taken in, such as Louisiana. Eight years later, the British granted the banished Acadians permission to return to live in what are now known as the Maritime provinces, on condition that they finally swore allegiance to England.
In their recent essay “Lost Classics of Acadian Disco and Rock ’n’ Roll,” for Canadian Art, Belliveau explains their desire to imagine and reinvent the history of Acadian rock music. They encompass the ambivalent identity of the Acadian people in the term “Acadianness.” For Belliveau, it is “a culturally specific experience that, although settler in origin … has historically been met with confusion and disdain from … both sides of the French–English language binary. Whether it was British authorities deporting our politically ‘neutral’ ancestors more than two centuries ago, or Québécois journalists shaming the pan-linguistic beauty of my own Chiac dialect today, Acadians always hear the same basic message on repeat: ‘Pick a side, kid.’ ” Thus, Acadianness is defined as neither English nor French, always understood, but also assumed by Acadians themselves as an indeterminate identity. Belliveau’s work suggests an Acadian self-consciousness dissociated from this duality and reconsidered as a distinct, if complex, identity.
In 1847 the American Romantic author Henry Longfellow published the epic poem Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie, which provoked an “awakening” of the Acadian identity. This nationalist wave helped sustain struggles for French education and linguistic rights in the Maritime provinces, and the character of Evangeline became a mythic figure in Acadie. While completely fictional, Longfellow’s heroine personifies, even today, a large number of cultural references.
In researching the early iterations of the body of work titled A Seated Girl Wearing a Cloak, Belliveau collaborated with various institutions to trace all the variants of the source image. This image, reproduced in a large series of lithographs, is based on a drawing with the same title made by the Scottish artist Thomas Faed, who later turned it into a painting titled Evangeline, after Longfellow’s heroine. The anonymous female subject posed in front of a landscape would eventually be assimilated into the collective consciousness as the legendary Evangeline, although neither the clothing, nor the landscape, nor the model is exactly Acadian.
Belliveau acknowledges a form of “drag” in the construction of the image of Evangeline. They further explored this idea in a subsequent project presented at the official pavilion of the 2019 Congrès mondial acadien, a “gathering” both cultural and political in nature. In Évangenalia Photobooth – one version of A Seated Girl Wearing a Cloak – Belliveau pursued their process of deconstructing and re-appropriating the myth of Evangeline and Acadian history. Various people, Acadian or not, were invited to sit as Evangeline for Belliveau’s iPhone camera, now in a setting more closely corresponding to an Acadian landscape. These portraits were then printed to resemble 19th-century cabinet cards, a copy of which was given to each model. The project provided an opportunity for people to “live the fantasy” playfully and ironically, while engaging in a form of temporal drag that Belliveau regards as affirming and transformative.
Many of Belliveau’s works revisit history, acknowledging that for several centuries, Acadians lacked the means to document their own history (or histories). The late transition from oral to written history instilled a perpetual desire to catch up to the dominant culture. For Belliveau, performing on the margin of the hegemonic culture, even through representation, motivates self-determination. Working with simulacra, the artist explicitly sows confusion: by blurring boundaries, they deconstruct, or even discredit, the dominant version of history.
Enter Jean Dularge. The name given to this fictional singer-songwriter is a nod to the Acadian people and a charming play on words: “les gens du large” or “People of the sea.” Because Acadian society was not equipped to create this character at a time when popular music was being shaped by influential artists such as Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell, the invention of Jean Dularge is a way of inscribing something missing in this history, of filling a socio-historical gap. The project takes the form of experimental historiographic research that includes the production of an archive: what happens when the idea of the existence and influence of a politically engaged Acadian singer is staged and pushed to its most extreme manifestation? Although much attention is paid to the composition of the archive – which gives the fiction credibility – it is important that anachronisms (or traces of them) appear to reveal the project as a self-determining act.
For Belliveau, agency can be achieved by stepping outside the present to rewrite the past and integrate a different reality. Perhaps there was never an Acadian protest singer because linguistic unease and lack of a strong sense of identity led to a slight discomfort (or what Belliveau calls “une petite gêne”) on the part of musicians who no doubt found it hard to imagine bearing a politicized message. Also, because the recording industry in Acadie was limited until the 1970s, potential role-models were difficult to access and the possibility of transmission was lost. Belliveau’s project includes a written history of Acadian rock titled Yesterday Seems So Far Away, in which the fiction of Jean Dularge is inscribed. This history is intended as a commemoration of a bygone time, an art scene that has digressed from the collective memory. In this way, Jean Dularge embodies all of these forgotten histories.
The 2021 Sobey Art Award Exhibition, organized by the National Gallery of Canada and the Sobey Art Foundation, is on view at the National Gallery of Canada until 20 February 2022. The 2021 Sobey Art Award winner will be announced in November. This article first appeared in Sobey Art Award 2021, published by the National Gallery of Canada, 2021. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.