As Groana Melendez and I begin our conversation about her artwork and upcoming thesis exhibition El Nombre Mío, Ajeno, I observe a banner in her studio that circumvents the walls. It is a scanned and enlarged ID card of her aunt repeating over and over. I start by asking her, “How much do you want your audience to be informed through writing or reading something (about the work)?” She responds by saying, “I will say it if I am asked. I am all about being transparent. There is a lot of background information, but how much of that people need to know, I’m not sure.” And from there, she leads me through the conversation of her “drawing” her family tree and the process that comes with it.
Groana was born in New York. Shortly after turning one year old she moved back and forth from New York and Dominican Republic, for years at a time in one place, and continued to do this throughout grade school. Groana and I discussed taking family for granted like many children and teenagers do. She said she felt close to her Dominican family members but also felt disconnected as an outsider and insider. This created a duality in her identity as the American relative in DR and as the Dominicana in New York. After her grandmother’s passing, Groana took a new interest in her Dominican roots and lineage. It was a role no one else in her family had taken on. She spent spent every summer in DR staying with her aunt and godmother cousin. As a routine, she would have to call her family members to let them know she had arrived in DR. Thus the cycle of visiting and receiving visits from many of her relatives would commence. She started to document her relatives during these visits as a photography student in college. Family albums and heirlooms were always of interest to Groana. She took portraits of her family even though often they did not want to be photographed but they accepted her. Her family archive started to take shape while embracing the confusing dynamic of her relationship to long distance family members she would come across in DR, sometimes years between encounters.
As her curiosity grew, Groana asked questions that deeply resonate with anyone locating themselves within their lineage; “Where do we get the European from? Where do we get the Black from?” Through time spent documenting her visits to the DR, Groana uncovered unsaid family histories, secrets, and glossed over accounts of her relatives in order to portray the “we are perfect” family image. Within this Groana started to use her photography as evidence of factual observations of her family members and their life. Her photography presents conflicting truths of her family tree and it’s hidden history. She says her family would never agree with the truth she presents in her photographs but she says the pictures are facts. Through her process to seek out the truth, Groana has found herself in confusing situations such as reacquainting herself with distant cousins of great aunts and remarried uncles and refers back to her archive to relocate these “lost” relatives. She explores the ongoing conversation of her family tree by subjecting her art and it’s viewers to the fog that comes with tracking lost histories, building and rebuilding family albums, that are tied to contemporary means such as social networks and digital archives. Although she is presenting evidence in her photographs, she means to show that family structure and the relationship between relatives isn’t as clean cut as your typical American 1950’s nuclear family. Groana is exhibiting her work in her thesis exhibition at the ICP-Bard MFA studios this Thursday February 25th at 6PM through Friday and Saturday from 2PM to 6PM.