Gwo Fanm

By Naomieh Jovin

A huge part of my identity and the relationships with those around me stems from familial interactions. Things happen to us, we happen to people, and through these interactions, stories are made.

Over the course of my life, I’ve had the desire to know who my mother was before my time. Two years ago, I found her only surviving photo album and inside were water-stained pages of photos that friends and family in Haiti had sent her. Through the colors and smells, memories came flooding back to me and something clicked; I felt reconnected and it launched me on what had felt like my life’s mission to reconnecting with my familial history. Finding the album prompted many conversations about my history. Not having any records of my mother in her youth along with the absence of her presence after her passing, there has been a need to fill this sort of emptiness.

My work explores knowledge through the realm of spirituality and the physical, speaking to the ways that family, social status and trauma may be carried in the body. Much of my work occurs through active listening, observation and recollection. I began making images of the women who were connected to me through my mother’s life and in a way, it became a search for my mother through them. While sharing memories of her, they also shared some of their own stories of their migration to the United States.

The project name “Gwo Fanm” is inspired by a conversation with my aunt after finding out the man who raped me was arrested. She expressed her anger towards him and praised God for doing what he does best. She then told me, in Kreyol, that I was a gwo fanm and that nothing can stand in my way. Gwo fanm translates to Big Woman in English. Big Woman as in “to take up space”. I immediately thought of my mom. The resilience she embodied while taking space as an immigrant black woman and of the many generations of black women that have come before her.

Referencing the images from my mother’s album and thinking about how the people in these images are dressed and the interior spaces that serve as backdrops compared to my own work made prior, I’ve come to the surprising conclusion that there are many parallels between my mother’s family photos and my work. These similarities highlight a spiritual connection to my familial history and my present self, which has led me to see meaning in not only connecting my past to my present but hoping that this project can resonate with others with similar family dynamics, leading them to re/discover the gaps within their family history as well.

Oftentimes, immigration breaks cracks into our minds and I’m really proud of creating a work that can extend healing to so many people in that way. This book will illustrate resistance and intergenerational trauma and how we carry them through our bodies. The pairing of found images, writings from relatives and my personal work will give birth to reflection, homage and generational resistance against erasure.