Jul 30, 2013 - Stories

Strangers and Relations

The New Yorker recently described the artist Laurel Nakadate as an “unpredictable, sometimes infuriating young photographer.”

Perhaps. But whatever description you use, the images she creates are singularly arresting.

In her latest series of portraits – called “Strangers and Relations”  – she turned to her 23andMe DNA relative matches for inspiration.

Laurel Nakadate. Photo:  © Suki Dhanda, 2011, Courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York Laurel Nakadate. Photo: © Suki Dhanda, 2011, Courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York

Laurel, who was born in Texas but raised in Iowa, is of primarily Japanese and European ancestry. But what that meant didn’t really come to life for her until she opened her  23andMe results and saw  the melange of ancestry among her relatives not only on her mother’s side, but with all the distant relations she found through 23andMe.

“It did surprise me,” she said. “My mom’s family always said we were primarily English, Irish and Scottish, but I was delighted to learn that we are also part African.”

Laurel was struck by the idea that these people who were strangers to her were also connected to her by a common distant relative. And it was that incongruous mix of the familiar and foreign that spurred Laurel on her project to document these people to whom she was related. It turned into a 37,000-mile journey in which she crisscrossed the United States to photograph those distant cousins.

An Upcoming solo exhibit of Laurel Nakadate work:
Laurel Nakadate: Strangers and Relations
University Art Gallery, Sewanee: The University of the South, Sewanee, TN
February – April 2014
Upcoming group exhibits that include Laurel’s work:
Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.
October 24, 2013 — February 9, 2014
Dis-semblance: Perceiving and Projecting Identity Today
21c Museum, Cincinnati, OH
July – December, 2013

These were all relatives she found on her maternal line. In each case she connected with them through 23andMe, which allows you to connect to your relative “matches” if both parties wish to make that connection. In Laurel’s case she made contact and sent messages explaining what she was doing and asked the people who were matched with her if they would be interested in participating. Quite a few welcomed the opportunity. As she fanned out across the United States, Laurel not only got to take photographs she also learned a little bit about their shared family history.

The portraits – all outdoors, all at night with people standing alone and lit-up by a flashlight – are all taken from a distance. The photos feel both distant and intimate – with the subjects wearing everything from what looks like a fake fur coat, to camouflage hunting gear, to a doctor’s white coat. One reviewer described the mix of photos as “a collected portrait of America.”

If you have the chance, you should check out the exhibit.

23andMe provides genetic testing services for informational purposes; your results may or may not help you to search for or identify relatives or family members.

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