Artful Blogger

ARTFUL BLOGGER: The tragedy of Newfoundland’s Beothuk people inspires powerful exhibition at Carleton University

Canadians always act so high and mighty when comparing past treatment of First Nations with the way the Americans acted. We didn’t slaughter our natives, we claim.

A still from the video March 5, 1819 by Rebecca Belmore

Well, that may be the case in some parts of the country, but not in Newfoundland, where the Beothuk people were hunted down like wild game by British settlers and became extinct in the early 1800s. It was deliberate genocide.

A new solo exhibition by Anishinaabe artist Rebecca Belmore at Carleton University Art Gallery shines a spotlight on that black page in our history. What is Said and What is Done, which runs until Sept. 1, is a multi-media show of video, photography, sculpture, and installation by one of Canada’s top artists. Belmore, of Vancouver, was Canada’s representative to the Venice Bienniale in 2005.

The star of the Carleton exhibition is a two-channel video installation lasting 2.5 minutes. The video is called March 5, 1819 and is a re-enactment, using actors in contemporary dress, of a tragedy that unfolded at a Beothuk camp at Red Indian Lake in the western interior of Newfoundland on that very date.

An image from the exhibit What is Said and What is Done, on view at CUAG until Sept. 1

A group of colonial settlers led by John Peyton had decided to take a Beothuk captive, supposedly with the intent of forming a friendly alliance. The group captured Demasduit, a young mother, and shot and killed her husband Nonosabasut when he tried to protect his wife.

Demasduit lived with European settlers for a year before she died of tuberculosis. The Europeans renamed her Mary March. Lady Henrietta Martha Hamilton, wife of the Newfoundland governor, Sir Charles Hamilton, painted her miniature portrait in 1819. The portrait is owned by Library and Archives Canada and is currently part of an exhibition of miniatures touring the country. The portrait has very much become the face of the Beothuk.

Belmore’s video reproduces the terror and heartache of Damasduit and her husband being chased through a snowy forest. Having the actors wearing contemporary clothes makes the video even more powerful, as if two of your own neighbours are being hunted. Watching the video, one feels like not just a witness, but also a perpetrator.

Much of Belmore’s exhibition does not touch directly on the Beothuks but deals more generally with the tragedies that have befallen Aboriginal peoples.

There are haunting, life-sized portraits of an Aboriginal woman entwined in cloth, like some bizarre cocoon or an Egyptian mummy. There is an overturned canoe swamped by black waves formed by a cloth that could pass for an oil spill endangering Aboriginal territory.

Belmore’s exhibion is being held in conjunction with Sakahan, the international indigenous summer-long show at the National Gallery of Canada. The Carleton exhibition runs until Sept. 1. Admission is free.