Nfld. & Labrador·Moratorium at 30

From cod to contemporary art: How the Bonavista Peninsula is finding a future

Watch Project Bonavista, a CBC documentary that explores a rural revival and rural art.

Watch Project Bonavista, a documentary that explores a rural revival and rural art

Project Bonavista: The post-cod culture boom on Newfoundland's Bonavista Peninsula

3 months ago
Duration 26:46
A rural part of Newfoundland has found a way forward after the cod fishery. But as contemporary art brings in tourists and business, it also questions uncomfortable aspects of the past.

Thirty years ago, cod was king in Newfoundland and Labrador, and the Bonavista Peninsula was no exception.

But in the wake of the cod moratorium in 1992, the rural communities began a years-long shift to find a way forward without the fishery. Over the years, the peninsula has managed to pivot and build up its arts, culture and history — bringing in new life, new ideas and crowds of tourists.

In a far cry from fishing culture, contemporary art has found a home on the Bonavista Peninsula, with the Bonavista Biennale leading the way. The biennale installs dozens of artworks every other summer, free for public viewing, bringing in award-winning artists from across Canada and around the world.

"People think it's one of probably the premier festivals in the country now, just because how novel it is, its approach to community interaction and the buy-in from community," said Gerald Beaulieu, an artist from Prince Edward Island.

In 2021, for the biennale's third edition, Beaulieu installed a life-size Albertosaurus skeleton that had taken him six months to make for a statement about climate change, as well as two giant crows built out of used car tires.

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

But other works in 2021 confronted aspects of the area's past that hit a nerve.

Logan MacDonald, an artist from Newfoundland and member of the Qalipu Mi'kmaq First Nation who now lives in Ontario, wanted to mount a installation involving Bonavista's John Cabot statue — a request the Town of Bonavista denied.

"I was really disappointed that I couldn't do the Cabot intervention," MacDonald said.

Cabot is much celebrated on the Bonavista Peninsula as the presumed first European contact in the area: his statue overlooks the Town of Bonavista, a replica of his ship is open to tourists downtown, and the region's highway is called the Discovery Trail.

Logan MacDonald's work Bodies on the Beach was featured at the 2021 Bonavista Biennale art festival. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

MacDonald switched focus and erected Bodies On The Beach, words and phrases placed on a fence lining a Bonavista shoreline, with the text drawn from Cabot's sailings around Newfoundland that suggested a human presence in the area — the Indigenous people who once lived in the area, the Beothuk.

MacDonald said he wanted people to consider pre-colonial human history, and how that is represented — or not — in the present.

"I think the more that we understand about all aspects of culture and history, the better we are as people," he said.

As the Bonavista Biennale got underway, the town pledged to find ways to better represent the area.

"I think the the piece that I think maybe Bonavista will have to do a better job at, is how we celebrate the history of exploration, and not colonialism," said Bonavista Mayor John Norman.

The Town of Bonavista's waterfront is pictured in August 2021. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

While tensions can arise, the questioning of accepted histories and narratives is an essential part of art, and is welcome fresh air to the area, according to one local arts supporter.

"The whole idea is to get the mind engaged in perhaps another way of thinking, or seeing something. And contemporary art particularly does that," said John Fisher, a longtime tourism operator on the peninsula who also helped sponsor the first edition of the Bonavista Biennale.

"I think people sometimes are a bit disappointed and say, 'Well, it's not cute or lovely to look at.' It's not supposed to be. It's supposed to get you to thinking."

Watch the documentary, The Bonavista Project, in the player above and take a tour through the 2021 biennale, as it asks big questions about climate change and colonialism.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Mark Cumby and Lindsay Bird

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