Multidisciplinary Acadian artist Rémi Belliveau’s work pertains to images and historic references of the (1847) poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Évangéline, A Tale of Acadie. The Université du Québec à Montréal graduate from Moncton was nominated for the long list for the Sobey Art Award – Atlantic for their work Souvenirs de Grand-Pré (2018) and Seated Girl Wearing a Cloak (2019). On June 9 they were named the Atlantic nominee on the shortlist for the 2021 Sobey Art Award.
Austin Daigle: Can you give me a brief background on your work?
Rémi Belliveau: I’m interested in addressing missing pieces of collective Acadian history with an interest for pop culture. It’s usually regarded as being without value, but I think more and more it’s being valued as a part of who we are in multiple societies.
Jean Dularge is a rock musician who I invented, that navigates the history of Acadian rock—there’s no such thing as Acadian rock—but there’s rock music being played by Acadians since the 50’s and he navigates that and bring forward missing pieces that are there but have been forgotten.
AD: What initially interested you in Evangeline above other Acadian icons?
RB: Évangéline interests me because it’s the literary narrative of the Acadian deportation, but being a literary narrative it’s not real, it’s not a true story. The people that told that story to Longfellow were already telling it from a second perspective. Longfellow never set foot in the Maritimes so everything in his poem is imagined, the irony of that is the Acadians in the 19th century saw for the first time they were acknowledged, legitimized as a community that suffered a terrible fate. Now we’re 150 years later and she’s become this obsolete cultural phenomenon, I didn’t know who Évangéline was until I was adult.
I find it interesting to think about the fictitious material that goes into building this myth, I find it empowering for me to take it back and try to get to the bottom and deconstruct it, one of the ways that I found to do that was to work with Scottish painter Thomas Faed’s Évangéline (1853).
Once you really start digging into the objects, documents, stories, it’s a really rich terrain of exploration. History is a western idea, there’s this obsessive idea of proving the past. Evangeline as a fiction is so interesting because Acadians think it’s real and that talks to me as an artist because I’m already playing in that space.
AD: Have you been doing any recreations of the image, or is the work mostly collections of existing pieces?
RB: My work specifically called ‘A Seated Girl Wearing a Cloak’, it’s me working with museum archives, going on auction sites, I’m getting objects off eBay. One of the most recent iterations of this body of work is called the ‘Évangalina Photo Booth’, and in 2019 during the Acadian world congress in Moncton, I had a photo booth setup where I hired a collaborator who researched and designed the dress that Évangéline wore, it was designed to be worn by whoever wanted to pose and people could sign up and we would document them and print off sepia cabinet cards. We took about 150 portraits that week.
AD: Why do you feel the image of Évangéline has held up so much over history?
RB: The poem was so popular, it’s one of the earliest if not most prominent example of American romanticism. What Longfellow does in that poem in a decolonial lens, he’s using Évangéline as a device for two political agendas. One is to villainize the British as this is the post American revolution. The second is she travels across the states, she’s charting the lands through literature claiming it as Euro descended white non-indigenous land. It’ a tragic story, it’s one of the rare stories where the main hero is a woman at the time.
Nova Scotia and the Nova Scotian government, round about the end of the 19th century, they developed a tourism industry that was thought as a way to capitalize on the popularity [of Évangéline], and in turn the displacement of Acadians.
AD: Do you consider your work more of a historical analysis or an artistic practice?
RB: I like the porous space between the two. I don’t see those two things as a binary that I can separate, for me it’s clearly my artistic practice. My art practice gets me to play historian or musicologist, all you have to do is put in the work and people will follow you along. I make up stuff sometimes because that is part of my practice, and people believe it and that’s part of the things I’m exploring. I’m not trying to trick anybody or propagate lies, but I’m using that leverage from my art practice.
AD: Tell me about the 250 plaster statuettes, what led you to that body of work?
RB: I’m interested in, specifically, the tourism industry. Souvenirs de Grand-Pré is my look into that history, and the idea that the tourism industry in Nova Scotia addresses NS as an Acadian-less place. In that narrative, they were deported. However, they were there, and they still are in pockets, especially in the west in Baie Sainte-Marie.
The statuettes I did in the Magdalen islands, which is an Acadian community in the middle of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. I thought up a fictitious device that could bring that traveling narrative to the island. I imagined it as a crate full of statues destined for Nova Scotia, that would have washed up on shore and been discovered by all these Acadians, they wouldn’t know what it was since it didn’t really necessarily address them.
The statue is based off of the (bronze) statue of Évangéline at Grand Préi. I copied a museum giftshop porcelain one, molded and cast it about 250 times. I intend on doing that project in different places. Every time that I visit a place that is predominantly Acadian, I could reinvest that practice of bringing the souvenirs there, acting out the traveler.