Photo by Mico Mazza

Unveiling a painting about the past

THE DEPARTMENT OF History at the University of Ottawa is presenting an oil-on-canvas painting representing the diversity, importance, and dynamism of what history professors teach and students learn. The painting, done by award-winning U of O fine arts graduate Mee-jeong Chae, will be unveiled in Desmarais on Dec. 8 by Huguette Labelle in one of her last official acts as chancellor.

Jeff Keshen, chair of the Department of History, describes some of the motivations behind commissioning the work.

“The idea was to inspire students to get them to see what they’re studying in this representation of our department,” Keshen explains.

“We’ve changed so much as a department over the last 10 years. This department at one time, like a lot of departments, was very eurocentric, was very Canadian … but we now have magnificent programs in Asian history, Latin American history, African history, world history, gender history.”

“We had [Chae] talk to more than a dozen professors to see what they teach, how they approach it, then to bring that together in some type of meaningful image that would speak to the students who were taking those classes, and inspire others about the dynamism of the past.”

Chae’s final piece may have been influenced by variety of sources, but the painter was able to narrow it down to one central theme: Human rights.

“I tried to figure out what would be the common interest. [One professor] mentioned women’s rights and gay rights, and [many] spoke about all the war and genocide and massacre, so I was thinking human rights would be a good thing to pursue,” the artist says.

The painting features a number of scenes that relate to human right violations, as well as historical figures who fought for human rights. Chae also wanted to broaden the way students think about history, so her piece also features non-recognizable figures.

“I put a little bit of creativity into it. This kid [in the painting], for example, has nothing to do with anything historically, but he might make people guess. There is a message,” she explains.

“I want [students] to openly and freely think about history. My purpose is to look at all historical figures as humans. Before they are great leaders, they’re human beings.”

Chae believes her painting is unique compared to other works.

“It’s a historical painting with some twists. [I used] fragmented images and [put] non-historical figures front and centre to differentiate it from classical and typical historical paintings,” she says.

Keshen is impressed with Chae’s concept, and hopes hanging it in the department will inspire conversation.

“People that we might not expect to be there are [in the painting], because they’ve done things that were important in the realm of human rights and promoting respect for the rights of minorities and promoting freedom and opportunities in parts of the world where it just doesn’t exist,” he says.

“I hope it really does spark discussion among people, and I hope it makes our students feel good about what they’re studying and somehow be inspired.”

All are invited to room 4101 in Desmarais at 11:30 a.m. on Dec. 8 for the unveiling of the painting. Lunch will follow at 12 p.m. If you want to attend, email Jeff Keshen at 

—Ali Schwabe