It has always been difficult for visual artists to make a living in New Brunswick, more so for francophone ones and even more so for francophone female artists. This exhibition looks at the evolution of women Acadian artists in the province from the early 1960s onwards, particularly in the first thirty years, and looks for the explanation of why. There are reasons for all artists in New Brunswick, regardless of sex or language, have for not making a reasonable living from their craft. The population of the province is roughly three quarters of million people, where three smallish cities make up less than half population with the rest of the people living in small towns and villages. Then there is the bilingual thing. We are Canada’s only official bilingual province. Culture is divided along English and French lines. Compare that with the situation in Toronto or Montreal with a population of several million. We just don’t have enough people to make it easy for our artists.
Compounding the problem is the almost total lack of visual art coverage by the province’s major newspapers. Nearly all of New Brunswick’s English language newspapers are owned by a single publisher, New Brunswick News owned by the Irving family. The papers do not employ a single professional art critic. The province’s largest city, Metro Moncton, which does have a strong francophone presence, does not have a major civic art gallery with an art collection. That is left to the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton and the Saint John Museum in Saint John, both focus more on anglophone culture than they do the francophone culture. Moncton does have the Galerie d’art Louise-et-Ruban-Cohen at the Université de Moncton, where this exhibition was shown, and the Galerie San Nom, a very good art-ran space; both work hard but the city cries for something more.
This is all a prologue to Tombées dans les interstices (Falling into the gap) because the problems of late 20th century Acadian artists getting their proper due crosses the issues of sex and are more systematic in nature than anything else. That being said, women artists in early 1960s did have to push themselves to centre stage by strong willpower and this would certainly include the artists in this exhibition. Curator Elise Ann Laplante is to be congratulated for her research in the difficult task of finding material about the work of these pioneer artists’ early efforts to get their work recognized. The artists in question are Dominique Ambroise, Yvette Bisson, Geraldine Cormier, Yolande Desjardins, Ginette Gould, Nancy Morin, Magda Mujica, and Suzanne Valotaire.
It is important to point out the role that the Université de Moncton played in the development of these artists. All of them, with the exception Bisson and Valotaire, have received all or part of their fine arts education at the university while Bisson taught sculpture for many years at the university’s Edmundston campus. The university, only established in the 1960s, was, and remains, at the centre of the development of francophone visual arts in New Brunswick.
I maintain that there is good, or at least interesting, art and everything that does not meet this simple standard is not art regardless of who made it, be they a man or woman. Certainly, the art in Tombées dans les interstices is good art by any standard and, of course, in this case by artists who are women and women who have fought hard for recognition.
You would be hard pressed to find feminist content in the work of Yvette Bisson or Geraldine Cormier. Bisson is a modernist sculptor and Cormier an abstract painter, yet both worked hard for the advancement of women in art and women’s rights in general in New Brunswick. There are a number of women artists, like Bisson and Cormier, who just want to be accepted as contemporary artists regardless of their sex and do not want to be limited to feminist “themes”. Yet, these two pioneers of this group during the modernist period faced roadblocks in their path because of their gender and the general “manliness” of the profession. It was a fight that Bisson and Cormier had to take on.
To paraphrase the cliché: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink”, I would add: You can get people to an art gallery, but you can’t make them look. Regardless of good intentions, content, however well intended, and true, will fail unless presented in a matter that will engage the attention of the viewer. Art must be art first and content will follow. Here curator Laplante has chosen her artists well to make a case for a closer look at Acadian women’s art. All of them can stand on their own merits in any setting.
I have always been drawn to the paintings by Nancy Morin. Her portraits, both in paintings and drawings, have strength of character that over shadows their beautiful sense of colour. Ginette Gould and Dominique Amiboise both have powerful feminists content, but present their case in a delightful way. They successfully draw me into their web, which forces me to think about their message. The performance art of Suzanne Valotaire via video format is more difficult because it is one step away from the actual performance, but it is powerful none the less.
It is difficult in a short essay to cover forty or so years of the art of these Acadian women artists. Thankfully there is an excellent catalogue with thoughtful essays by curator Elise Anne Laplante, Penny Cousineau-Levine, and Nilly Dennene. Cousineau-Levine’s essay, in particular, shows the progress that she, and others, have achieved in the art world because of the women who preceded her. All in all, a very thoughtful exhibition by a young curator who I think has a great future.
Tombées dans les interstices
A Contemporary Look at Contributions of a Few Women Artists to Modern day Acadie
Galerie d’art Louise-et-Ruban-Cohen, Moncton
11 August—8 October 2017