Thursday, August 19, 2010

Cantor Arts Center: Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa

I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human rivers
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
Langston Hughes, Rivers 
Mask, Yaure, Cote D' Ivoire, 1970'
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.

 Roudy Azor, Port-au-Prince, Haiti.  Lasirèn-Twins and the one who follows the twins, making three (satin, beads, sequins). 1980's

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. 

John Goba, Sierra Leona. Headdress for the Mami Wata Jolly masquerade. It employed multiple elements from Indian and Hindu culture. 1980's
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 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."

Dona Fish. Ovimbundu People, Angola. 1950-1960's. Wood, pigment, metal, mixed media. In Angola, Mama Wata is known as Dona Fish (Fish woman). This work was kept in a house as "decoration" but it evoked fear and accusations of witchcraft.
Part woman, part fish, Mami Wata merges the elements of both. 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. These indigenous African water spirits are linked in a complex system of beliefs and practices, which are linked, but not always shared with Mami Wata.
Abdal 22. Kinshasa. Democratic Republic of the Congo. 1989. Mami Wata as a light-skinned, western style femme fatale, complete with mirror and a come hither look - mad, bad and dangerous to know. 
 Beautiful and seductive, protective yet dangerous, sacred and yet earthy, Mami Wata is celebrated throughout much of Africa and the African Diaspora world.  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.

 What is the exhibit about? " It’s about glitter and tears, bawdy jokes and baskets of flowers, miracles and mysteries, money in hand and affairs of the heart. It’s about standing at the edge of the sea at dawn and watching a world re-born. In that world no one walks; everyone dances and swims; everyone, that is, who has taken the plunge into Mami Wata’s realm. " Holland Cotter, NY Times 

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. 

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
Holland Cotter. NY Times. Mami Wata - a Diva of the deep
West African Diaspora Mami Wata Vodoun


Zoomie said...

About mermaids, my father in law used to say, "Too much fish to eat and not enough woman to love." :-)

namastenancy said...

Somehow I think that this African Goddess is a bit more than that! I suspect that if you tried to "eat" her, you would live long enough to be very very sorry.