FRONT AND CENTRE
A conversation with artist Laurena Fineus
By Christine Jean-Baptiste
The first time I stumbled on Laurena’s art, I was scrolling through Instagram on the explore page. I saw a portrait of a black woman caressing another woman of colour on her lap, in the middle of a field near a stream of water. Natural elements of flowers and plants filled the frame.
The piece was part of the Not My Hair (digital art, 2017) series and it resonated with me on a personal level. Maybe it’s because she created a space where women of colour were front and centre, which is more than what I’m used to seeing. Or maybe it was the detail in the soft expression in the faces of the women that reminded me so much of the women I surround myself with every day. All I knew was that I had found one of my new favourite artists.
Laurena Finéus s a Caribbean-Canadian visual artist and fine arts student at the University of Ottawa. Her pieces explore self-identity, womanhood, and sexuality, in the hopes of empowering women of colour.
It used to be a lot like what you said about school, especially during the first year of university. But during my second year, I realized that I really needed to start doing art for myself again. Before I picked my visual arts program, I would just make art for me and after that it became this thing that was mostly homework or something I had to give in for grading. Last summer, I really pushed myself to try and become more involved with what I create.
Since I write a lot for school, I have found that sometimes it's hard to find the inspiration to write for something that is not published or graded. So, I’m curious, what makes you want to willingly pick up a paintbrush and create?
CJB Where did that motivation come from?LF Well, I don't think there's a lot of women of color in the art scene in Ottawa. It’s also for the people who really love my work and are not represented in art, so that always keeps me going.
CJB Would you say your art is a reflection of yourself?LF I started to describe my work as self-discovery because lately every piece I do is about digging and looking at myself and learning from my culture. So, there's this idea that there's a lot from Haiti, or any country you come from originally, that you don't necessarily know completely and you have to read between the lines. So, I try to make everything that I do as a kind of theme or subject about Haiti that I can try to understand better.
CJB That’s such an interesting way to learn more about Haiti. Which specific piece encompasses that for you?LF Well my last piece for example I represented the culture of Kanaval (Carnival in Haiti)—everything from the costumes, to what they’re celebrating, to the religion behind it, and exploring how Voodoo has been represented in Western media. I try to make every piece a way to understand myself a bit more, something that isn't only for aesthetics but also a way for me to learn more about what I do and about who I am.
CJB I’m also Haitian and you just gave me flashbacks of my grandmother telling me so many stories about Kanaval. What goes into your research for pieces inspired about Haiti?LF It's funny that you mentioned your grandmother because she is a very key aspect of my work because there's so much that she knows that no one else really knows in my family. She's the beginning of everything, so I always try to refer to her first. For research, I try to get very visual, so I would go to the library and look for books. Usually I look for black artists and then from there, try to see what kind of work they get inspiration from, so it’s a whole process. Another thing is music.
CJB What music inspires you?LF I've been really into albums from the late ‘50s from Haiti because they have really interesting album covers, so I look into that kind of aesthetic as well. It's kind of like a mix of everything, honestly.
CJB I'm going to backtrack a little bit, what made you want to pursue an artistic career in the first place?LF In the 12th grade when you had to choose a career path, I started to think about everything else I could do besides art, and nothing really fit with what I saw myself doing in the future, because it just didn't seem like it would be long term, if it wasn’t for art. And I told myself if pursuing art doesn't work out, there's always going to be something else I could try. I think my biggest fear was really just my mom and my grandmother and how they would react.
CJB How did that conversation go for you?LF Well, since art has always been part of my life, they weren’t surprised and they were so accepting of it. Which was really not the reaction that I was expecting but to them it was natural, almost like, “you’ve been doing this for so long. It just makes sense that you go that path.” I was really thankful for that.
CJB Your experience is very similar to mine, in the sense that my mom and grandmother weren’t shocked that I wanted to do something in writing, because I was doing it for so long, but I was still so nervous going into that conversation.LF I think that a lot of people of color fear going into the arts, because of their parents or what others might think and I think that's one of the biggest factors as to why we're not as visible in the art community. We definitely need more people to go towards these kind of spaces, because I feel like art—even though it's one of those spaces that claims to be so diverse—is also the most problematic.
CJB Being an artist of colour, where representation in the arts community in Ottawa is not very visible, is there any pressure that comes with that?LF I always knew that I wanted to make my work about representation, but then I started to notice assumptions and judgement during my second year. One of the comments I heard was that my work looked like a souvenir that you see in Cuba.
CJB Stop...LF That’s exactly what the person said, and it stuck with me, because it doesn't mean that whenever I put a person of color in the piece, it has to become some kind of sidewalk art. That takes away all of my research and all the work that I put behind it. It also makes me think of when people label my work as “black art.” Why does it have to be black art? I know that a lot of people might disagree with that. I really love the idea of black art because it's important in the industry, but it also comes with this automatic idea that you're doing it with a lot of baggage.
CJB That makes me think of how I believe some people see my race before they see my work or learn anything more about me. I think it’s easy and comfortable for people to label others and see them solely for their label, even though it can be problematic, especially if you’re not the one claiming that label for yourself.LF Exactly.
CJB As we know, people are also so multifaceted, so who are you when you're not making art?LF That's a really good question. So, when I'm not making art, I’m a homebody, I’m introverted. But I've been really getting into fashion. Actually, I've always been really into fashion, and that’s not something that a lot of people know about me, but before I went into art my biggest dream as a kid was to become a designer.
CJB My idol as a kid was "That’s So Raven."LF Me too! When I was back in grade school, I really loved shows like That's So Raven because she was this designer, who was also a black woman. I thought if Raven can do it, I can do it too! I’m really into things like fashion and also skincare lately has been a big thing for me and also body care. So basically, any kind of activity that helps me better myself.
CJB I think that’s really important when you’re in a high-pressure environment. So, what's next for you after school? Any plans to move?LF I really want to go towards curating, to create more spaces for artists of colour and have a space to share their work. But when it comes to my personal work, maybe doing my Master’s in Fine Arts in Montreal or Toronto, or also just staying in Ottawa and creating more inclusive spaces. There’s so many options that I'm still trying to see what would be the best for me.
*This interview has been edited for clarity.