Riva Maid (2019). Two-channel SD Video. Duration 6:46 mins.

Fall 23 - Memories

Ania Freer


We know that you grew up and studied in Sydney, Australia, what prompted your return to Jamaica?

When I first visited Jamaica in 2016, I only intended to stay for a month, but very quickly I knew that this was somewhere I needed to live, longterm. I didn’t take my return flight to Australia and instead I applied for my Jamaican citizenship and passport. The moment I arrived in Jamaica I felt a deep sense of calm, belonging and connection, on a cellular level. I knew that I needed to know Jamaica from the inside out, from the ground up, and to do this I needed to get to know the country and the culture from a lived, everyday experience. There wasn’t much thought that went into my decision to stay, I just knew I had to and so that’s what I did.

How did your return to the island change your work?

Living in Jamaica allowed me to find my voice as a storyteller and artist. I am drawn to stories which help me to understand the gaps within my own history. Through the process of recording other people's memories, oral histories and everyday experiences, I find myself feeling more connected to my own sense of identity finding the threads which help me to connect to a part of heritage and identity that I had always felt so disconnected from. 

Jamaica, like everywhere else, has a richly complex society, what made you focus on rural communities?

My grandparents are both from rural communities in St Mary and Manchester and I wanted to immerse myself in the stories and culture of country Jamaica. I am interested in folklore and oral stories which animate the natural environment in interesting ways.

Oral histories, in the form of the griot were, and still are, very important to indigenous cultures, how are the stories you encountered transmitted and preserved today?

I am specifically interested in River Maid stories which exist in remote river communities across Jamaica. These stories are specific to the communities they come from, preserved in the memories of those who have encountered her and passed down orally from elders to children. I’ve been told that it’s harder to see a River Maid these days because they have gone into hiding since electricity, cars, people and construction increased within communities. There was a time when you could see them all the time, sitting on the river bank, combing their hair and singing, loud enough for the whole community to hear. These days they conceal themselves within the roots of the cotton trees that sit along the river banks and rarely sing like they used to. As development increases in these river communities sightings of River Maids decrease, which is why I feel there is an urgency to record, archive and preserve these time sensitive stories.   

What did you learn about the Roaring River community through these stories?

The fact that these stories still exist and continue to be passed down and preserved, taught me that Roaring River is a community that has a strong vein of resistance.  

How did these exchanges alter the way you see/experience the world?

These exchanges changed everything for me. Originally I had planned to visit Jamaica for a month or so and then return to Australia. It was after hearing the stories about the River Maid, the spirits that live in the cotton tree and the Cave Master that I decided to stay in Jamaica. I wanted to have a lived connection to the country and culture - one that could only happen with time, patience and everyday experiences. The exchanges I was having with people in these early days of arriving in Jamaica helped me to form a sense of identity and connection in a way that I never knew was possible. I learnt how to slow down, move with confidence, connect to an inner sense of power, self-reliance and resilience and give thanks for every moment, act of kindness, new day and meal in front of me. I began to appreciate the importance of community, how integral genuine relationships are to safety and wellbeing, the depth of generosity from strangers and the importance of sitting, talking and sharing stories as a way of building friendships and trust.

What was the most memorable part of filming River Maid (2019)?

The interview process with Dwight “Bobo” Hayes was by far the most memorable. This was a story that Bobo had told me fragments of over the years. He first mentioned the River Maid when he showed me the Blue Hole at the river head back in 2016. Each time I visited Roaring River I would ask more questions about mermaids, river mumma and spirits and Bobo would give me a little more of the story. In 2018, confident that the information wouldn’t scare me away from the river and the community, he agreed to do an interview with me. We sat at a little table at the home I used to stay at, and he told me what he knew. By this time I had shown so much interest and curiosity about water spirits that Bobo knew this was something I was genuinely interested in and I wouldn’t laugh, ridicule or trivialize what he was telling me. It was important for me that he knew that I was recording these stories so that they can be preserved and archived for future generations. Listening to his words, the details and the somber and serious tone in his voice as he spoke into my voice recorder was by far the most memorable experience of making this work. 

What would you like viewers to take away from viewing River Maid (2019) and your “Real Talk” series?

I want viewers to be reminded of the importance and power of disseminating knowledge through everyday stories, oral histories, folklore and mythology. I want my audience to experience a feeling of intimacy and connection with the storyteller as they sit and listen to personal memories of an individual they may otherwise never meet. I want to bring stories from the margins to center, drawing my audience into the internal worlds and lives of the people disseminating important knowledge from rural commentates in Jamaica. I want my stories to momentarily disorientate my viewer and help to inspire sensations of compassion, gratitude and appreciation. 

3 books I was reading while working on this piece.

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Kimmerer, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion by Kei Miller and Black Albino by Namba Roy.

Ania Freer is an Australian-Jamaican artist, filmmaker, cultural researcher, and curator based between New York City and Jamaica. Working in installation, film and curating, Ania uses oral histories to explore identity through themes of resistance, labour, folklore, craft traditions, race and class. Her films work to disrupt imperialist narratives and recenter marginalised voices. Ania is the founder of Goat Curry Gallery, a platform which features artworks from Jamaican craft producers along with her documentary series Real Talk, an intimate collection of video portraits from across Jamaica. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology and Film Theory from the University of Sydney. Ania’s work has been exhibited at the National Gallery of Jamaica and her film, Strictly Two Wheel, won Best Documentary Short at Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival. She is a Caribbean Film Academy Fellow, New Local Space Kingston Curatorial and Art Writing Fellow and is the recipient of the American Australian Association Arts Fund scholarship. Ania was awarded residencies at Art Omi, Ox-Bow and Artist in Residence in Everglades (AIRIE). Her work has been featured in Jamaica Journal, Forgotten Lands and DIZZY Magazine.