Water Spirit is Focus of National Museum of African Art Exhibition

Figurehead from an unidentified vessel, Circa 1900-1925. Wood, gilt, pigment. The Mariners' Museum

Beautiful and seductive, protective yet dangerous, the water deity Mami Wata (pidgin English for “Mother Water”) is the focus of a traveling exhibition that opened Wednesday, April 1, at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. “Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas” explores 500 years of the visual culture and history of the water spirit that is celebrated throughout much of Africa and the African Atlantic world. The exhibition continues through July 26.

“Mami Wata” brings together both traditional and contemporary art from west and central Africa, the Caribbean, Brazil and the United States. It includes a broad range of arts, from masks and figures to 20th-century altars and ensembles to paintings, sculptures and installations by contemporary artists.

“The Mami Wata exhibition will capture the imagination of our visitors, most of whom are familiar with the idea of mermaids, but likely unfamiliar with how this particular and alluring water spirit is recognized in the visual and performing arts of Africa and the African Diaspora,” said Christine Mullen Kreamer, the museum’s coordinating curator for the exhibition.

“Mami Wata has been the object of my affection and study for more than 30 years,” said Henry John Drewal, guest curator for the exhibition. Drewal is the Evjue-Bascom professor of art history and Afro-American studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and adjunct curator of African art at the university’s Chazen Museum of Art.

Exhibition Highlights
The exhibition presents the many faces of Mami Wata—who is frequently portrayed as a mermaid, snake charmer or a combination of both—as well as other African water spirits. The presentation demonstrates the pervasiveness of the water deities, the centuries-long centrality of water and these spirits in the lives of people across many cultures and the relevancy and adaptability of Mami Wata images and beliefs in an ever-changing world.

A large video projection by artists David and Hi-jin Hodge called “Watertime” is suspended overhead in the gallery to evoke the presence of the ocean and other bodies of water that are so sacred to Mami Wata. A selection of key objects provides an overview of movements, images and ideas that have played major roles in the arts of Mami Wata.

Highlights of the exhibition include:

A 15th-century bronze medallion bearing a double-tailed mermaid

Masks from Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Guinea-Bissau and elsewhere featuring elaborate carvings of mermaids, snakes and marine life

From Benin, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, recreations of altars and devotional objects dedicated to Mami Wata, Lasirèn and Santa Marta la Dominadora

Two large masquerade figures made by the de Souza and de Nevis families in Benin that are performed as part of celebrations featuring Mami Wata

A selection of Mami Wata headdresses and masks made during the 1970s and 1980s for Jolly masquerades in Freetown, Sierra Leone

Works by contemporary artists including Alison Saar, Sonya Clark, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Twins Seven-Seven, Claudette Schreuders, Edouard Duval-Carrié and Eve Sandler

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