Editors' pick

Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and its Diasporas

Other Exhibit, Mixed Media
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Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and its Diasporas photo
Collection of Herbert M. and Shelley Cole
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Editorial Review

Scathing Beauties
'Mami Wata,' the Spirit of the Waters, Brings With Her a Surfeit of Serpents

By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, May 2, 2009

The spirit of the waters is changeable, and ripples, and is allied with the moon, and is, of course, a she.

Like the oceans, like the rivers, she appears in many guises. "Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas" at the National Museum of African Art is an exhibition about one of them, the one with the snakes. It's also about her beauty. She is often at her mirror. Her hair flows as the river flows, and she combs it as the waves comb the surface of the sea.

Mammy Water or Mama Wota or La Sirne or Mae d'Agua, she comes with many names. Because her 111 objects on the Mall are from many different places on both sides of the Atlantic, from Togo and Benin, Haiti and Los Angeles, she has different styles, too. When she shows herself to humans, she does so as a sisterhood. But it's always her.

Not everyone believes in her. Pish posh, certain skeptics say, as if her existence were really nothing more than poor black folks' superstition. Still, she keeps reappearing. Certain Christians dread her. Kwame Akoto, one of these (who signs his work "Almighty God," and paints in Kumasi, Ghana) sees her on the wrong side of the God vs. Satan battle. "Do not go to Maame Water. She is a bad spirit," is what his art advises, and it isn't hard to see what it is he's getting at. Dangerous allurements -- paganism, voodoo, sex -- shimmer in her wake.

You don't have to be a polytheist to acknowledge her ubiquity. You just have to look around.

Mack Sennett's Bathing Beauties, and wet Anita Ekberg in Fellini's "La Dolce Vita," and dripping Ursula Andress, the quintessential Bond girl, stepping from the waves in the movie "Dr. No," they all are Mami Wata, as are the three sirens in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," whose singing lures the hicks. Susanna in her bath being ogled by the elders, and Diana in her grotto pond, and the nude young thing in "Autumn Morn," and Daniel Chester French's figures on the Dupont Circle fountain, they're Mami Wata, too. So is Miss America. She dresses in a swimsuit while hoping to be crowned; when finally victorious, she gets to frolic in the surf.

A visitor from ancient Greece encountering this show would recognize her instantly. The naiads, nymphs and nereids who flickered though the antique world were Mami Wata's kin.

Faithful monotheists, who prefer to see divinity as one instead of many, will notice how these metaphors, like the streams that feed a river, gather to partake of one numinous identity. Mami Wata isn't only African. She's Jungian, she's universal.

Also, she's a mermaid, half-human and half-fish.

In the first picture that you see -- a painting from Kinshasa, circa 1990 -- she is seated on the waters, holding her moon-mirror and combing her long hair. Curator Henry John Drewal, who organized the exhibition, thinks that that image might have come from the carvings on the wooden ships that plied the coast of Africa in the age of sail. To make that point explicit, precisely such a figurehead, bare-breasted and gilded, has been borrowed (from the Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Va.) for inclusion in the show.

Sometimes Mami Wata has many arms and heads. This, too, is a borrowing, though it doesn't come from Europe, it comes from Hindu India. Time and time again, Mami Wata imitates. Sometimes she resembles a Portuguese Madonna, and sometimes she's as blond as Daryl Hannah was in "Splash."

She has not borrowed her snakes. Mami Wata has always had them. They're one of her chief attributes. In one painting from Lubumbashi, snakes wind around her fishtail. The spirit of the waters also holds her snake aloft so that it becomes a kind of scaly rainbow that arcs above her head. Her relation with the snake is not a new association. In a 19th-century headdress carved by the Sherbro-Bullom peoples of Sierra Leone, two snakes, clearly twins, coil just above her ears.

Mami Wata in a good mood, as her priestesses will tell you, is entirely beneficent. Mami Wata in a bad mood is as harrowingly scary as the sea itself. Snakes can bite and kill, as Cleopatra's asp did, and can be as low and cunning as the serpent is in Genesis, but they have their good sides, too. Snakes stand for immortality, perhaps because they seem reborn each time they shed their skins, and they also stand for healing. That's why two are seen entwined around the caduceus, the physician's symbolic staff.

Snakes, when they appear in the flicker of the images, seem to have a clear affinity for beautiful young women, not just Cleopatra, but Nastassja Kinski, too, who was very famously photographed by Richard Avedon, as you may recall, wearing just her python. This intimate association is older than Dr. Freud. Its most famous representations are from the 16th century B.C., from the temple of Knossos in Crete, where, in figurines of ivory, the goddess with her hands upraised shows the world the serpents wrapped around her arms. An early 20th-century carving by the Annang-Ibibio peoples of southeastern Nigeria strikes the same pose.

The African Museum is mostly underground, and so peculiarly constructed that no matter where you stand in the Mami Wata exhibition you can see a kind of movie screen high above your head. Projected on that screen is "Watertime," a recent video by David and Hi-jin Hodge, who shot a stretch of the Pacific each day at the same time for an entire year. The video they made is not particularly original. Always the same and always different -- like the objects shown -- it's just right for this show.

Mami Wata is restless. Her show is restless, too. It won't settle. It keeps your thinking flowing, from Ghana to New Jersey, from the past into the present, it keeps moving on and on.

Drewal, the curator, has been in touch with Mami Wata for more than 30 years, and his commitment is apparent in the range of what you see. Drewal is a professor of art history and Afro-American studies at the University of Wisconsin. He organized this heartfelt and memorable show, and wrote its learned catalogue, for the Fowler Museum at UCLA.