There’s a great deal of mystery in old photographs. Beyond the visual moment conveyed, there’s a story that accompanies it. That story is not always clear, but is often reimagined. In "Florida Water," fine artist/filmmaker Numa Perrier reimagines the story and moments in a distinct photograph of her mother. What results is a complex merging of memory, absence, and imagery set against the backdrop of Port Au Prince, Haiti.
Shot by acclaimed cinematographer Arthur Jafa, Perrier’s film pieces together a Haitian ritual performed by her mother and other women adorned in red dresses. Perrier, who didn’t meet her mother until she was 17 years old, writes that their reunion wasn’t “the happy, cheerful type that I had seen on talk shows. We had a great difficulty knowing what to say to each other.” Looking at old photographs together was a way for them to communicate without words.
This image-driven communication forms the core of film, which relies on a series of beautifully-lit compositions and sparse sound design to evoke a mood of nostalgia, and also of mystery. There are no words to direct our understanding of the events taking place. The silence mirrors that of Perrier’s relationship with her mother. As the women lit candles and poured libations, I wondered what this ritual meant, and what it signified in their lives. Perrier also wondered about these things, saying her mother would only tell her that they were "celebrating the spirits." Her film is way of weaving together the prior moments- both to the photograph, and to her sense of self.
When the exact photograph is restaged with Perrier taking the place of her mother, a haunting quality emerges. Their faces could easily be swapped in time. Later scenes of the women riding in an open-air truck amidst the ravages of earthquake-stricken Haiti, gives a timeless feel to the narrative- almost as if the photograph could’ve been taken years ago.
In the accompanying installation, some of the mystery is addressed when the ritual captured in the film becomes physically tangible. Plantains on a plate, half-lit candles, beads, and other objects are presented to us on a small table as the original photograph is projected onto a wall with the women’s names scrawled over their heads. In the middle of the table is a photograph of Perrier’s mother post-ritual- lying down on her back with arms outstretched, as if she’s been blessed or visited by spirits. It’s an incredibly fascinating image, and helps to bring the narrative full-circle. What we don’t know, we imagine, as Perrier did.
"Florida Water" recently finished it’s run at Papillion, a contemporary art gallery in Leimert Park, dedicated to showcasing the work of emerging artists. Founded by Michelle Joan Papillion, the gallery expands the artistic presence that has made the area popular and also rare as a haven for black culture in Los Angeles. "Florida Water" was very much at home here, nestled in its bold, white walls along a street where the names of prominent black artists are listed in the cement. Here, memory and art come together, and they’re often reimagined.