In Roland Barthes' seminal work Camera Lucida, the philosopher inquires into the nature of the photographic image by examining an old photograph of his mother taken before his birth. Interested in the way an image can recall a lasting memory while simultaneously informing our history, Barthes explores the memory of his mother through documentary portrait images, but is at a loss when it comes to fully engaging with her memory. The image is not enough to sustain this encounter; instead Barthes begins to recall the objects that tie his memory to the maternal figure: an ivory powder box, a bag, a chair that now sits in his own room. These experiential ties ground his recollections and allow the relation between him and his mother to persist in the now. It is in this negotiation between documents, artifacts, and experiences that Puerto Rican-born, New York-based photographer Mónica Félix’s work stops to ponder.
Mónica Félix, Hollywood Royalty 2, 2010, Lambda print, 27 x 40 in.; Courtesy of the artist.
Similarly concerned with her maternal historiography, Mónica Félix inserts herself directly within her own history as a way to confront, navigate and challenge the content of her past. Instead of passively documenting experiences as an outsider, she employs staged photography, costume and symbols steeped heavily in metaphor in order to embody the questions and preoccupations she is negotiating.
In her most recent exhibition Reina (Queen) at the Museo de las Americas in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Félix explores her self-image as a woman through a collection of highly performative conceptual self-portraits. An experiment in self-reflectivity and self-definition, Félix has been inserting herself into the topography of her family’s history for nearly half a decade, utilizing video and photography wherein she usurps passages of her family history in order to explore a deeper relationship with her own present. In her series Reina, Félix the daughter infuses herself in the semantic memory of her own mother, blurring the boundaries between feminine figures. The result is a term she herself has coined as matergrafía—or motherography—a self-biographical oscillation between mother and daughter. They stand as conflated feminine figures wrapped up in expectations, commonalities and bloodlines. Hyper-concerned with the makings of her own identity, this body of work tells the story of a period in a girl's life where she teeters on the verge of becoming a woman, the possibility of becoming her mother and the sentimental and emotional catharsis that comes with that realization.
Mónica Félix, Madre Perla, 2010, Lambda print, 27 x 40 in.; Courtesy of the artist.
Like Barthes’ examination of his mother’s belongings, Félix also seems concerned with the physical preservation and display of maternal artifacts to explain her relation to that maternal figure. In her work Madre Perla (Mother of Pearl), 2010, the artist calls upon the objects of her mother’s boudoir to fill in her biography. Approaching the vanity like a curious investigative child, role playing and rummaging through her mother’s jewelry box, Félix takes her place in front of the mirror, not only to document but also as a symbolic gesture, to usurp the throne, the seat previously belonging to her mother. In Epílogo (Epilogue), 2012, and 2sweet + 2be = 4gotten, 2010, Félix embodies her past in a more direct and corporal manner, projecting photographs onto her own body, interacting with the unattainable past and drawing allusions to her own place in history. In so doing she constructs a place for herself in a more distant past that—while still affecting her—lies completely unreachable.
Ultimately Félix’s exhibition better documents a process of examination than present conclusions. Negotiation, always, is perhaps the sole immutable factor in her equation. Whether the exchange of glances is framed by generational divides or by various media, Félix’s dialogue with her past opens up as a diary would to democratize her experiences allowing the viewer to submerge themselves in the most personal of familial ties.
(Image on top: Mónica Félix, Hollywood Royalty 1, 2010, Lambda print, 27 x 40 in.; Courtesy of the artist.)