Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University presents “Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas,” August 4, 2010 through January 2, 2011. This exhibition explores 500 years of visual cultures and histories of the water deity widely known as Mami Wata (“Mother Water”) through the diverse array of traditional and contemporary arts surrounding her — sculpture, paintings, masks, altars, and more from west and central Africa, the Caribbean, Brazil, and the United States.
“Eeeh, if you see Mami Wata, never you run away. ” Sir Victor Uwaifo, Guitar Boy, 1967
Beautiful and seductive, protective yet dangerous, Mami Wata is celebrated throughout much of Africa and the African Atlantic world. Often portrayed as a mermaid, a snake charmer, or a combination of both, she and a “school” of related African water spirits all honor the essential, sacred nature of water. With 100 works portraying Mami Wata, the exhibition introduces the water spirit’s iconic persona, then reveals a widespread presence and popularity of this water spirit in religious and artistic practices around the world, and finally concludes with Mami Wata as artists’ muse today.?
Her name means “Mother Water” in pidgin English, a language developed (like Swahili on the east coast of Africa) from various native languages combined with English to provide a common language for communication and trade. Africans forcibly brought to the Americas as part of slave trade carried with them their beliefs, practices, and arts honoring water spirits such as Mami Wata. Reestablished, revisualized, and revitalized in the African Diaspora, Mami Wata emerged in new communities and under different guises, among them Lasirèn, Yemanja, Santa Marta la Dominadora, and Oxum.
Often associated with making money, her powers extend beyond economic gain. For her followers, she also aids in concerns related to fertility, to childbirth and infant mortality. Yet she is also dangerous for a liaison with Mami Wata often requires a substantial sacrifice, even a family member or celibacy. Her powers are curative and also, provide an avenue for women to become powerful as priestesses. Some of her associated deities protect women against abusive men and one image in the show shows Mami Wata strangling Mobutu, the former brutal dictator of Zaire so she is also used for political comment. His limitless powers combined with the deaths of so many in his family and his own solitary death reflects for Mami Wata’s devotees the jealous and possessive side of her nature which leads those who are abusive or faithless to a catastrophic fall.
Mami Wata is a complex symbol with so many resonances – mother, sex symbol, spiritual guide, protector and sometimes warrior woman. For contemporary artists, she inspires work imbued with symbols of the African Diaspora linked back to Mother Africa. generating, rather than limiting, meanings and significances. Two of the more fascinating installations in the exhibit are complete altars, one to Mami Wata and the other to Santa Maria la Dominadoro, the saint who who helps women escape from abusive relationships. One altar to Mami Wata in her form of joy and love is an immaculate but complex tableau of soaps, perfumes, sweet powders, shells and even a small guitar to honor Mami’s love of music. The altar to Santa Maria la Dominador is darker but no less complex – crosses, Catholic saints and African deities combine to provide protection against brutality and violence. The small videos accompanying these altars make it clear that this is a living faith.
“Mammy-wota…You can always tell them, because they are beautiful with a beauty that is too perfect and too cold. Chinua Achebe.”
Part woman, part fish, female, snake, serpent, a composite of multiple deities from the various cultural and native African influences, Mami Wata merges the elements of all. She may also take the form of a snake charmer, sometimes in combination with her mermaid attributes and sometimes separate from them. She can exist in the form of indigenous African water spirits known as mami watas and papi watas or assume aspects of a Hindu deity or a Christian saint without sacrificing her identity.
Beautiful and seductive, protective yet dangerous, Mami Wata is celebrated throughout much of Africa and the African Diaspora. She and a “school” of related African water spirits all honor the essential, sacred nature of water. With 100 works portraying Mami Wata, the exhibition introduces the water spirit’s iconic persona, then reveals a widespread presence and popularity of this water spirit in religious and artistic practices around the world, and finally concludes with Mami Wata as artists’ muse today.?
For over half a millennium, Mami has surfaced in many guises, a synthesis of all the cultural influences that that washed up (and sometimes washed over) Africa. She continues to evolve as part of a living culture as this exhibit makes abundantly clear.
Catalog: Henry John Drewall. Mami Wata. Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas. Fowler Museum at UCLA. LA. 2008 (all quotes from this book)
Images courtesy of the Cantor Art Center