Jean is a portrait of the Honorable Madame Jean Augustine. It references the genre of official portraiture, yet offers a new perspective on visual representation and photography. The portrait’s intimate, documentary aesthetic, its massive scale, and its out-door location, signal an unconventional approach to the traditional portrait of a public figure. As the outcome of collaboration between Jean Augustine and the artist Althea Thauberger, this image records and celebrates Augustine’s contribution as community organizer, role model, educator, friend, and mother. Moreover, this image raises complex issues concerning representation and monumentality in Canada, and signals to a new approach to portraiture and public art.
There is a definite tension between the private process of making a portrait and the public exhibition of the final product. Ultimately all the ideas and interaction between the artist and subject are incorporated into a single image that each viewer will interpret in her or his own way. The diverse audience that Augustine’s portrait will reach can be broken down into two groups – those who recognize her and those who don’t. If you recognize Jean Augustine as a public figure, you might interpret her portrait through her accomplishments and the issues she represents in politics, education, and community work. If you don’t recognize her, you will simply see a woman standing in a landscape. You will notice her appearance, her physical traits, her clothing, and wonder about the intention and purpose of the image.
How we each interpret the image will have to do with the assumptions we make about representation, assumptions that are at times difficult to admit or discuss. This portrait seems out of place in the sense that it is removed from the political context in which Augustine normally is depicted, exhibited in the realm of public space, and outside of the context of the art gallery. Furthermore, images of this scale are most familiar to us in the context of advertising. Many people will look casually at Augustine’s portrait and imagine that it is related to a message about diversity and/or gender. They will not be wrong in thinking this, as many of the questions that originate from Augustine’s portrait stem from the rarity in our culture of portraits of black women.
As the first black woman elected to Parliament in 1993, Augustine was Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister from 1994-1996; Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and the Status of Women from 2002-2004; and Chair of numerous groups, including three terms as Chair of the National Liberal Women’s Caucus.
As a public figure, Augustine is familiar with her photographic image and deeply aware of the person she projects on camera. It is this conscious awareness that challenged and engaged Thauberger’s directorial approach. Thauberger’s mode of developing images usually grows out of a consideration and relationship with the subject, resulting in a representation true to the negotiation of the two. In this project, we still witness this negotiation, yet a tension is present, creating a greater sense of ambiguity of the image that strengthens the work. It is the uneasiness between unguarded consciousness and self-awareness that come to the forefront, raising further considerations about the power of photographic portraiture to capture such nuances.
Thauberger’s exploration in self-expression and individualism in her photography, video work and performances, is in this way particularly apt for the production of this project. In the end, this collaboration challenges both Augustine and Thauberger’s accustomed relation with the camera.
Jean is complex because it allows for a variety of interpretations to develop and expands on issues of representation, race, individuality, gender, and notions of monumentality. In Canada, we do not have much practice looking at portraits of women of color in this manner. Canadians rarely see portraits of black women in the context of professional or political achievement and influence; it is the absence of these images in our visual culture that allow for stereotypes to be perpetuated. The presumption that images of visible minorities are attached to the promotion of multiculturalism does reflect a political reality, one that tends to be tokenistic in its approach.
Gallery 101, Jean Augustine and Althea Thauberger created this project to explore these issues and to encourage discussion. Ottawa is both geographically and metaphorically the centre of federal debates surrounding national identity and multiculturalism. The public exhibition of this portrait on the gallery’s façade, suggests the interconnectedness of art, politics and community; interconnections that mark the experience of the artist, the subject, and the viewer.