Tuesday, December 6, 2011

"Beothuk: A Face from Extinction"

I'm deeply humbled and very proud that the Beothuk Institute in Newfoundland will be accepting my painting "Beothuk: A Face From Extinction". During her telephone call on December 5, Teresa Greene, the President of the Institute, also confirmed that my research was correct and that the portrait is an accurate depiction of a male Beothuk. I get to hang on to it for a little while though because they want to ensure they have a safe place for it where the public can also see it.

The story of the Beothuk is a dark tragedy in Canada's history. The Beothuk, who had lived in Newfoundland for thousands of years, were effectively encroached upon by European fishermen and settlers. Not only did the Europeans force the Beothuk away from their traditional fishing and hunting economies, they also pushed them into the interior of Newfoundland. Groups of Europeans would often go off on murderous rampages in search of the Beothuk whom they accused of stealing their fishing gear that had been left behind at the end of the fishing season. As with other First Nations groups, contact with Europeans also led to the spread of tuberculosis and influenza among the Beothuk who had no immunity against the foreign diseases. By 1829, between the encroachment onto their traditional lands, the loss of economic base, racist and lawless behaviour among the new settlers, disease and war, the Beothuk eventually became extinct.

The portrait I painted was inspired when I read the history about the Beothuk. Since Europeans hadn't really taken the time to know and understand them, there is very little information about the Beothuk except for a few annotated illustrations and accounts from the diaries of Europeans. (Some illustrations were created by Shanawdithit, the last living Beothuk who was held captive in the final months before her death from tuberculosis.) In my research, I found out about a British company who had recreated a forensic reconstruction of one of two complete skulls that were found in a Beothuk burial ground. I was able to create my portrait using the reconstruction images for the basis of the facial structures and descriptive clues from historical texts for the colours and textures for skin, eyes, hair and clothing.

The story of the Beothuk is a painful one but still a story that must be taught. Canadian history is rich with victories and grand accomplishment but also stained with atrocities that must never be repeated again. I am proud that my painting is accurate and deemed appropriate by the Beothuk Institute for display in one of their public settings. I hope the portrait will help people gain a deeper understanding of this historical tragedy when they are able to put a face to the Beothuk.

To learn more about the Beothuk, visit The Beothuk Institute or check out this page on Wikipedia.