Three views of Michaëlle Jean
Style asked three Ottawa art photographers to capture the essence of a woman who was an accessible governor general, and remains a passionate believer in the arts and an enduring style icon
The downtown studio at Arts Court known as the Black Box is humming with life. Three photographers intent on adjusting light readings murmur to assistants. A makeup artist darts in to check on five little girls under the age of 10, eliciting their delighted giggles, while their parents gossip in the hallway outside. The atmosphere is chaotic, energetic, expectant.
And then she arrives. (See behind the scenes at the photo shoot)
Bright-eyed and curious, the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean enters the studio, dressed in a brown business suit and green top, but with the kind of pointy-toed stilettos that elicit a gasp of wonder. Immediately, the energy slows and heads turn.
She’s not oblivious to it — as Canada’s 27th governor general, she has a sixth sense about these things — yet she seems unaffected. Glancing around, she zeros in on the girls waiting for a photo shoot with her.
“Oh! Les filles sont si belles, mon Dieu!” she whispers, before walking over to them with a warm smile. She spots a five-year-old with an angelic face and a magnificent mop of red hair. “Les cheveux roux sont remarquable!” she exclaims, turning to the child’s mother. “I always wanted red hair!”
Then, and only then, does Michaëlle Jean — co-founder of the Michaëlle Jean Foundation, UNESCO special envoy to Haiti, University of Ottawa chancellor and icon of style — turn to the adults in the room.
“So,” she says, clasping her hands. “What is this all about?”
“This” is a chance for three noted Ottawa art photographers — Jonathan Hobin, Darren Holmes and Jamie Kronick — to give us Jean through their lenses. Given no further restrictions than one studio and a 40-minute time-frame, they each created a portrait of Jean as they saw her: a woman of the people who overcame enormous challenges as an immigrant; an elegant and dynamic former representative of the Crown; a hands-on intellectual or a touchstone for engagement among disaffected youth.
Whatever their vision, she offers hers. “I expose myself, that is what it is,” she says, explaining her approach to public life to an attentive Holmes. “Guises I’m not good at, but I can respect convention. I can step outside of convention,” she says, literally taking a step to the right. “You know, when you step out of tradition, you are taking risks. I see that as diplomacy on a human scale. Look around you,” she says, gesturing, “and we are many.”
It’s something of a theme for the 55-year-old. Most recently, her highly unconventional official Rideau Hall portrait by Ottawa artist Karen Bailey deliberately depicted her as one among many. Suggestive of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch (The Company of Captain Frans Cocq), it democratically portrays Jean as equal to 18 other figures in the painting, such as military doctors and her husband, Jean-Daniel Lafond, 67, yet she remains very much the focal point.
And so it goes in real life. That she has parlayed our fascination with her every move and gesture into her roles as co-founder of her own foundation comes as no surprise. If she is intelligent, enterprising and endlessly fascinated with culture, the foundation represents the latest iteration of her passion in life: giving youth at risk a political and cultural voice through arts initiatives. The foundation may be housed at the University of Ottawa campus, but its scope is national. Working with private sector, public and not-for-profit organizations, it offers grants through more than 700 grassroots groups that use arts-based strategies to help underserved youth effect social change. Last year, the foundation also conducted forums on the power of art and developed spaces for youth to display their work.
“We want them to know they can become change-makers,” she says, passionately. “Thanks to these initiatives, entire neighbourhoods are using theatre, spoken word, dance and film as a process to bring them together. I can relate to the situation of a lot of young people confronted with racism, exclusion, poverty, isolation and powerlessness, but (who respond) in an active manner. Art is an expression of their civic responsibility, their citizenship and sense of belonging, knowing that you are not alone,” she says. “In some cases, these youths are saying art has saved their lives.”
It’s a lesson she and Lafond, a noted film director, philosopher, author and foundation co-founder, learned early in life.
Born at the end of the Second World War with a father who had been taken prisoner, Lafond was displaced financially and culturally in post war France. “Everything was lost. When you are young, you don’t know what it means to be poor, it is hidden by your parents.” Faced with an uncertain future, Lafond was 10 or 11 — “younger than my daughter” (Marie-Eden, 13) — when he first discovered theatre. It soon became a passion that later helped pay his way through university.
“I could say it was the first saviour for me.”
Jean’s tale is perhaps better known. Born under the bloody dictatorship of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, her family fled Haiti and sought refugee status in Canada in 1968. After settling in Thetford Mines, Que., her parents’ marriage eventually fell apart and she, her sister and mother moved to a basement apartment in Montreal. As a student, she co-ordinated a study on spousal abuse, then worked at a women’s shelter and with immigrants. “It made me the person I am,” she says of the volunteer work. “To me, this type of work is like breathing, drinking water. It’s absolutely essential in one’s life.”
So, too, are culture and art. At home in Ottawa, Jean and Lafond revel in modern and representative art, collecting pieces by significant Québécois artists such as Marcelle Ferron and René Derouin, along with Inuit and native art. “At our house,” she says, “we think nothing is more sustainable than culture.”
Or fashion, for that matter. “First of all,” she laughs, “I don’t think fashion is frivolous. What you wear becomes a statement. I wanted to use even my body as a way of saying ‘this creative energy is Canada, we have young designers who are talented.’ Fashion is something that I got from my mother. It is something that I teach our daughter.”
And although she’d never consider wearing jeans — “we have to have a sense of discernment,” she explains — she did literally let her hair down and excited the chattering classes when she wore it unstraightened while holding vice regal office.
“Wearing my hair natural meant a lot to black women,” she recalls. “It was a conversation about alienation and being yourself… about saying ‘this is who I am, what you see is what you get.’ I knew what it would mean.” She pauses for a moment and smiles. “You do have to know about how to walk in fashion. It’s not about disguising yourself. Be affirming of who you are. It speaks about you.”
Turning back to the photo shoot, she is gently guided by Hobin to a bench where she is surrounded by the little girls. He urges them to cuddle in close, their bodies and heads draped on her lap and across her shoulders. Somehow, without effort, she is absorbed into the image and becomes part of the whole. She may be the star, but as ever, she is one of many.
“My work is primarily inspired by issues that affect children, so it was important to reflect Michaëlle Jean’s personal and charitable work with youth initiatives. Two years ago, I depicted a youth portraying Michaëlle Jean eating a seal heart for my series, In the Playroom. That iconic moment in her career also became an international news story about Canadian culture. It became important to have the girl who portrayed her as a way to recognize the significance of that moment to me. Creating an image with young girls who could represent her, aspire to be like her and are inspired by what she’s achieved, acknowledges the impression she has left on a whole generation of women.”
“I wanted to portray her the way I see her, as someone who isn’t necessarily able to be boxed into one definition. I kept it simple; I didn’t want it to fight with her presence. Madame Jean and I chatted about reacting honestly to things that happen around us, regardless of our position/job/role and we went with that for the shoot. My chosen frames are always the ones between the ‘right’ shots. I like them to be a little off-balance and not too self-conscious.”
“Since finishing her term as Canada’s governor general, Michaëlle Jean’s primary focus has been with her foundation. She is coming from such a high-profile position worldwide to a more localized, behind-the-scenes role, and I wanted to contrast these two personas in my photograph. She has posed for countless photographs; I wanted to literally, and figuratively, take a step back and lift the veil on the environment and process surrounding the ‘typical’ photograph. By revealing the space in which the photograph was made, one gets the context beyond what we are used to seeing.”