FORT KENT, Maine — There is a definite wow factor for visitors walking into the Acadian Archives on the University of Maine at Fort Kent campus these days.
The archives exhibit “Mardi Gras Remembered” includes several “grosses tetes,” the papier-mache sculptures that have been a tradition with French festival for centuries.
The sculptures come courtesy of Le Festival Acadien de Caraquet on the Acadian Peninsula in New Brunswick and host site of the 2009 World Acadian Congress.
In 2014 the St. John Valley joins western New Brunswick and the Temisquata region of Quebec to host the first internationally sited World Acadian Congress, which is expected to draw up to 100,000 visitors to the region over a three-week period in August.
“This exhibit is the first international exchange of Acadian culture between Acadians from the New Brunswick peninsula and Acadians from Maine,” said Lise Pelletier, director of the Acadian Archives.
The origin of the grosses tetes dates back to medieval days and myths of giants roaming across Europe.
In the 15th century the figures were an important part of religious processions depicting scenes from the Bible and the cycle of Charlemagne.
“Over time they changed their meaning and became iconic representations of a region, city or neighborhood,” Pelletier said. “By adapting the ideas of different eras, the processional giants have become parade giants of growing importance [and] giants of carnivals and festivals.”
Larger than life, colorful and made to be worn, the figures command the archives exhibit.
Greeting all comers is Lili Tintamarre: Giant of Acadia, an 8-foot-tall, 84-pound papier-mache costume designed to be worn on a person’s head.
Created by Caraquet artist Pauline Dugas, Lili Tintamarre was a central figure in that region’s celebration of Acadia Day on Aug. 15.
In the next room is a 20-foot-long dragon designed to be worn by several individuals.
In both cases, the costumes are festooned with kitchen implements and tools, a tradition directly related to Acadia Day celebrations, Pelletier explained.
“Aug. 15 is the feast day of Our Lady of Assumption, our patron saint,” Pelletier said. “On that day Acadians around the world gather at 6 p.m. and make as much noise as they can using pots, pans and other kitchen implements.”
The idea, Pelletier said, is to show the world not even the deportation of the 1700s — when the Acadians of Nova Scotia were forcibly ejected by the British to areas in Maine and Louisiana — could destroy the culture.
“The Acadians survived the deportation and were not decimated by that attempt at ethnic cleansing,” Pelletier said. “By making all that noise, it’s really a way to thumb our noses at the British and say, ‘We are still here.’”
Tea balls, spoons, strainers, hand mixers, forks and even an old bicycle bell hang from the dragon — all designed to make joyful noise.
Lurking in corners and above patrons’ heads are other masks including King Neptune, Gargoyle and one titled simply “The Big Head” with a snaggletoothed smile made of seashells.
Smaller, handheld noisemakers include the same implements in addition to rings from mason jar lids and small bells.
“The artists who made these masks have been to Europe and learned about the whole mythology of giants and dragons,” Pelletier said. “I called the people up in Caraquet and asked them if they were interested in doing something with their American cousins, and they jumped at the chance.”
Surrounding the masks are items, multimedia displays and posters depicting the history of Mardi Gras around the world.
“Mardi Gras, or Carnival, [is] derived from the Latin expression ‘carnis levare’ meaning ‘farewell to the flesh,’” Pelletier said. “It has existed for more than 2,000 years [and] was a nonreligious event before being adopted by the Catholic Church.”
In the Catholic Church, Mardi Gras kicks off Lent, the 40 days of fasting leading up to Easter.
The archives display includes items from Carnival celebrations from South America, Europe, Louisiana and the St. John Valley.
“All traditional events during Carnival revolve around role reversals,” Pelletier said. “Halloween did not exist for us in the St. John Valley, instead, for Mardi Gras, we went from house to house wearing our clothes inside out and masks or pillowcases over our heads.”
At each house, Pelletier said, the children sing or tell a funny story in exchange for candy or other treats.
A thread of a common culture runs through the practice, Pelletier said, with Cajuns in Louisiana going door to door “begging” for food to prepare a communal feast.
“We have been separated geographically for 250 years, but the cultures remain essentially the same at the core,” Pelletier said.
The archives director hopes the exhibit attracts the attention of young and old people who want to learn a bit of the area’s history and living culture.
“What a great opportunity to experience the culture for the students,” Terry Murphy, UMFK professor of education, said during a recent visit to the archives. “Displays like this are not only a good way to keep the culture alive but to keep it moving forward.”
A proponent of experiential learning, Murphy said her students already employ puppetry in some of her courses, and she sees the Carnival “grosses tetes” as a perfect complement to those projects.
“It would be a wonderful way to wed and marry the Acadian culture to the classroom,” Murphy said.
Such words are music to Pelletier’s ears who adds that her office already has developed an extensive lesson plan to go with the display and hopes to welcome up to 700 area schoolchildren in the coming weeks to view the exhibits.
In the meantime, she said, the display is only the beginning of a flow and exchange of art, ideas, programs and creativity among Acadians around the world as the area prepares for the 2014 Acadian World Congress.
“We want to see people coming together not just to share heritage,” Pelletier said. “We want them to share a vision of the future, as well.”
For information on the exhibit or to make a group or school reservation, contact Pelletier at 834-7536 or Anne Chamberland at 834-8631.