This year’s official poster for Festival des Acadians et Créoles commemorates the arrival of the Acadians to Louisiana. It shows settlers stepping ashore amid blue skies and cypress moss, with little trace of the hardships endured. For that, there are other paintings.
“Expulsion of the Acadians: The Epic Journey From Acadie to Louisiana” by Robert Dafford showcases the tragic events that led to the settling of south Louisiana.
The exhibition at the Paul and Lulu Hillard University Art Museum’s A. Hays Town Building on the University of Louisiana at Lafayette campus brings the works together for the first time and coincides with the 250th anniversary of the arrival of the Acadians led by Beausoleil Broussard.
Muralist Dafford is up on a scissor lift in Gretna, standing in one place on a 6-by-8-foot platform that has a chair, a desk and a stereo. He’s a week behind schedule on his next 40-foot mural, this one on German ancestry.
“I’m still interested and the work is still going,” he said. “Lots of different people settled Louisiana, millions of German immigrants, but this time, there’s more to work with. With the Acadians, there was nothing about the arrival. It took a lot to visualize.”
The first of the 15-painting Acadians series was commissioned by Bob Lowe for Acadian Village to illustrate the exile. The next few were completed in 1978-79, then throughout the 1980s and ’90s, when Dafford painted the settlement of Louisiana after the arrival of the Acadians.
“I was trying to get a picture in my head of the exile,” known as La Grande Dérangement, Dafford said. “None of the Acadians were painters, but the more I read, the more I realized I couldn’t put it into one painting and I needed to do a whole series to fill in the visual gap in our history.”
The individual paintings are on loan from different owners, except for those unable to be retrieved, such as the 80-foot painting in Nante, France, the two belonging to Jack Grey and Dr. Robert Morton, and a 30-foot painting in St. Martinville. Digital reproductions were made to provide continuity.
The series begins with “The Expulsion of the Acadians (Grand Pré 1755),” painted in 1978, and culminates in “The Arrival of the Acadians in Louisiana,” painted in 1995, for which living descendants matching the age and gender of their ancestors sat for Dafford’s composition.
Shown sparely without embellishment, the works stand on their own against white walls and wooden floors. They tell a story of dispossession and defeat, how very little effort was made to absorb the exiles and how many ultimately accumulated in New Orleans and Opelousas.
In other places, the homeless were met with hostility, held in ports and detained offshore to their detriment. Dafford underscores the suffering with bleak skies that don’t brighten until the outcasts come to Louisiana.
“Acadiana people deserve epic proportions for their epic ordeal,” he explained. “You have to think big, you have to realize the big image is bigger than you, and it has an effect that smaller work doesn’t have. It’s also more difficult to achieve, or can be.”
For Dafford, there was nothing to go by.
“Paintings aren’t just politics and events, but weapons, clothes, boats, ports — what did they look like at that time? What did a well-dressed lady and gentleman wear? Tools? What did a candlestick maker wear?” he said.
In order to find information about the harbors, Dafford took details from paintings and engravings.
“I collected all kinds of reference books, amassed a library, and as a result, I’ve done historical murals around the U.S. I didn’t set out to be an historical painter; I wanted to be a surrealist,” he said. “They just kept following me.”
Portions of Dafford’s “Expulsion of the Acadians” are featured in a new book, “The Public Art of Robert Dafford,” published by The University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press with photographs and commentary by Philip Gould. The exhibition is free and open to the public and will remain on view through Oct. 11.