This alumna paints a broader picture of Haitian history and culture

Posted on Friday, February 5, 2021

Portrait of Laurena Finéus sitting next to one of her paintings

Photo credit: François Mittins

An only child raised by her mother and grandmother in Gatineau, Quebec, Laurena Finéus grew up listening to stories about her grandmother, who left Haiti for Canada in the 1970s to build a life for her family. This meant leaving her children with relatives until she had the means to send for them.

Laurena’s grandmother had been hired by a Canadian family to work as a nanny and she was sending money home to Haiti so that Laurena’s seven aunts and uncles could immigrate north. Knowing this, Laurena developed feelings of deep gratitude toward her relatives and a strong sense of responsibility to make something of herself. So, when she decided to enrol in uOttawa’s fine arts program, Laurena was nervous about telling them.

“I really didn't want to worry them or disappoint them, because they worked really hard so that I could be where I am,” she says. “The arts speak to me most of all and have ever since I was little. But I realize that it’s a difficult career path, especially for a woman of colour. When I started university, I already had it in mind that I was going to work three times harder because my grandmother is already 90 years old, and I really wanted her to see the fruit of my labour.”

Painting of Laurena's family

Famille, acrylic on canvas, 2017

It turned out that her mother and grandmother were both very supportive of her choice, and in early March 2020, right before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Laurena had her first solo exhibit at uOttawa’s Gallery 115, one she thoroughly documented so that her grandmother, who is no longer very mobile, could experience it too.

“I really poured my heart and soul into this exhibition,” she says. “The vernissage was a really memorable evening for me as an artist because it helped me see that this is in fact where I feel most comfortable and most accomplished.”

Mise à nue forcée: A retelling of Haiti’s history

Laurena’s exhibit, called Mise à nue forcée (a forced laying bare), was inspired by an excerpt from a literary memoir called Failles, in which Haitian author Yanick Lahens critiques the media’s coverage of the earthquake that killed 300,000 people on January 12, 2010 and left Port-au-Prince in a bed of rubble. In this passage, Lahens argues that the media’s portrayal of the natural disaster — publishing images of carnage and naked Haitian bodies — served to reinforce the harmful stereotypes of Haitians as vulnerable, primitive and in need of rescue. She says that what is really laid bare in these images is the socio-economic state of the country, ravaged by colonization and neoliberal exploitation.

“There has always been this characterization of Haiti as a republic of savages, because it’s actually the first Black republic, the first enslaved people to be freed from slavery,” says Laurena. “I chose this name for my exhibit so that I could do a ‘mise à nue,’ a laying bare of Haiti, one that’s broader and more organic. A counternarrative, essentially, that showcases the country’s history and rich culture, and what Haiti represents for me.”

To explore the many facets of Haitian identity, Laurena draws inspiration from a variety of sources: archival images, documentaries about Haiti and its diaspora, and pictures from her family albums, to name a few. Her paintings often include historical figures and references to the Haitian Kanaval (“carnival” in Haitian Creole), an annual celebration held over several weeks leading up to Mardi Gras. Occasionally, she’ll incorporate a family member into one of her historical scenes as a way to connect Haiti’s past with her present.

“Having lived in Canada my whole life, I’ve really only experienced Haiti through my mother and grandmother’s eyes,” she explains. “So, taking the time to learn its history and its historical figures, understanding how Haitian civilization has evolved over time, really helped me orient myself. As a diaspora, we are always floating between two worlds. And for me, as an artist, I always had this duality in mind and this question: Can I really talk about Haiti without having been there? I’m almost scared to talk about it because I haven’t really experienced it. But, at the same time, it’s a part of me.”

Here are two of Laurena’s pieces that were featured in the exhibit. Today, they are part of the City of Ottawa art collection and can be found at the Karsh-Masson Gallery at City Hall.

If I Was President

Painting called

Oil and acrylic on wood canvas, 48x60" (122 cm X 152 cm), 2019. City of Ottawa Art Collection

The title of this work is inspired by a song by Haitian musician and former member of the Fugees, Wyclef Jean, in which he describes the precarious cycle of political life in Haiti. The chorus, in particular, evokes the danger of unequal power relationships imposed by the state and the ridiculous role of its leaders.

"If I was president, I’d get elected on Friday, assassinated on Saturday, buried on Sunday and then I’d go back to work on Monday. If I was president."

The man dressed in white is Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti's first democratically-elected president, whose election was marked by controversy due to the suspicious involvement of the United States and the assassination by the army of several Haitians presumably opposed to his victory.

The figure in costume, to the left of Aristide, is former Haitian first lady Michèle Bennett, wife of the late dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier. She is known for her enormous behind-the-scenes influence on Haitian politics. Her hidden face alludes to the silent role and exclusion of women in Caribbean politics.

The costume is a reference to the Haitian carnival, setting the socio-cultural context of the work. The carnival, with its colonial origins, is a Haitian reappropriation of Mardi Gras, a festival created by French colonists and initially forbidden to slaves. After the 1804 uprising, the festival became a symbol of decolonization in Haiti and within the Haitian diaspora.

The soldiers marching in the background towards the “Duvalier Ville” sign are an allusion to the farcical image of Haiti and the limited vision of its future that many politicians, including Duvalier, seemed to have. It’s also a reminder of the Haitian army’s reign of terror through decades of coups and civil war. We see the constant battle among different parties aspiring to absolute control.

Papa Machete

Painting called

Acrylic and oil on wood canvas, 48x60" (122 cm X 152 cm), 2019. City of Ottawa Art Collection

This work depicts the resistance and tenacity of the Haitian spirit. Machetes were used by slaves in Haiti to cut sugar cane.

The character of Papa Machete was inspired by a short documentary made by Jonathan David Kane in 2014. It’s about a man named Alfred Avril, nicknamed Papa Machete, who practises a martial art unique to Haiti that he learned from his father and now teaches to his followers.

This martial art, as well as fencing techniques, were used against the French colonists during the 1804 uprising. Avril is a symbol of freedom and honour. This painting pays tribute to all who fought for freedom and established the world’s first Black republic, Haiti.

The scene takes place in a Haitian port during the 1991 American embargo. It depicts the last food shipment from the U.S. after the controversial election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The rooster represents the Fanmi Lavalas party of Aristide. The officer Papa Machete is fighting is Raoul Cédras, the former head of the army who led the 1991 coup.

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