Under her spell
New Stanford exhibition devoted to the water spirit Mami Wata
Sometimes she's a nervy, seductive snake charmer of a woman, her skin glittering with beads. Other times she hides her mermaid tail out of sight. She's the African water spirit Mami Wata, and Henry John Drewal has been smitten with her for more than 40 years.
Traveling and living in Africa decades ago, the scholar became entranced with Mami Wata, seeing her half-woman, half-fish image in murals, sculptures, headdresses. He went to ceremonies and was befriended by her priests and priestesses. He was reminded of the universal sacredness of water.
"I was seduced," Drewal said. "She just kind of grabbed me and said: 'Stick around. You need to learn something.'"
Today, a hundred visions of Mami Wata surround Drewal. He's standing in a large gallery at Stanford University's Cantor Arts Center, inaugurating the exhibition "Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas," for which he is guest curator.
The show was organized and produced by the Fowler Museum at the University of California at Los Angeles, where it debuted. It then went to the University of Wisconsin — where Drewal is professor of art history and Afro-American studies — and on to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Now all these Mami Watas have journeyed from the Potomac to the Pacific. Visitors are greeted at the start of the exhibition by sounds of the sea. A wall of video shot by David and Hi-jin Hodge of Half Moon Bay shows a swath of Miramar ocean filmed every day at the same time for a year, then edited to capture wave patterns and reflections.
Stepping deeper into the gallery, visitors see a vibrant array of Mami Wata-themed pieces: paintings, dolls, costumes, altars and masks. Many pieces are from west and central Africa, including a "Dona Fish" sculpture from the Ovimbundu peoples of Angola. The wooden figure is both dangerous and graceful, with her eerie blank eyes and long fingers. She faces the ocean video as though pondering the sea.
Other works follow the African diasporas to the Caribbean, United States and Brazil, including beaded flags from Haiti bearing Mami Wata's face. Some artists are true believers; some depict Mami Wata as a Christian demon; others see her as a creative muse.
Drewal came to Stanford last week for the show's opening, which brought in an enthusiastic crowd. He plans to return to give a free lecture in October.
Dressed in jeans and sandals, the friendly Drewal gave the crowd an overview of the exhibition. It begins with the ocean video, with the water depicted as protective, healing and dangerous, and Mami Wata reflecting all these things.
"She is as fickle as the waters on this planet," Drewal said.
Mami Wata's kaleidoscope of faces reveals her many origins. Her name comes from pidgin English and may mean "Mother Water" or "Mistress Water"; it may be written as "Lasiren" or "Maman de l'Eau," or many other ways, Drewal wrote in the exhibition catalogue. She has a following in many lands, and has also been influenced by many cultures.
In an exhibition section focusing on Mami Wata's historical origins, various works show how the European mermaid blended with the African spirit. Europeans brought mermaids to Africa as early as the 1400s, as ship figureheads, designs on playing cards and book illustrations.
Africans, he told the Cantor crowd, promptly "Africanized" the mermaid, transforming her into a Mami Wata image swimming with crocodiles. In the 1800s, pictures of snake charmers also made their way from Europe, and Mami Wata began to be seen with a mighty serpent around her neck.
Many images at the Cantor depict the spirit in her snake-charmer guise, including a sculpture of wood, paint and rubber made by a member of the Yaure peoples of Cote d'Ivoire, circa 1970s. The big-eyed Mami Wata easily holds a serpent above her head with her large hands.
In the 20th century, the "ever-growing complexity in Mami Wata worship" also absorbed an Indian influence, Drewal wrote in the catalogue. Indian merchants and films "led to a growing fascination with Indian prints of Hindu gods and goddesses," he wrote. "In various places, especially along the Ghana-Nigeria coast, people began to interpret these deities as representations of a host of mami wata spirits associated with specific bodies and levels of water."
One of these Indian-influenced works in the exhibition is a bold headdress by John Goba of Sierra Leone. The piece, perhaps from the 1980s, has many animal and human faces, and its wood is enlivened by pigment, fabric, beads and netting. A red bindi adorns one person's forehead, and a pair of cobras crown the headdress.
Museum curators said these bright hues, and the sequined flashiness of some of the pieces, were part of what attracted them to the exhibition. The works feel far from the stereotype of African art as monochromatic wood sculptures, said Barbara Thompson, the Cantor center's Phyllis Wattis curator for the arts of Africa and the Americas.
"This artwork really debunks the museum myth," she told the crowd.
Some of the most striking pieces are in the final section of the gallery, which focuses on artists from many countries who see Mami Wata as a muse. American artist Sonya Y. Clark's abstract work "Aqua Allure" weaves a repeating Mami Wata mantra into a surface of plastic combs and holographic paper. A faceless woman with long, elegant lines is the focus of Nigerian-born artist Obiora Udechukwu's etching "Watermaid I."
One corner is devoted to Eve Sandler's mixed-media work "Mami Wata Crossing," which speaks of slavery, the horrors of the Middle Passage, lost ancestors, and legendary African mermaids. The contemporary African-American artist has placed a red betta fish swimming in a glass bowl atop piles of cotton. On the wall is a video image of a woman being showered with water, perhaps baptized, and a pale family tree painted on a blue wall.
Water sounds play as visitors read Sandler's poem-prayer on the wall. It says in part: "Mami Wata / wash your trouble / swim / siren song / embrace wood / and flesh / the water." The artist dedicates the writing to her great-grandparents and "ancestors whose names are unknown."
"She wanted to remind people of her family's history," Drewal said. "She made a family river rather than a family tree."
Mami Wata's spirit has clearly spread far and wide, and has been free to evolve and absorb new ideas. Drewal said that's one of his favorite aspects of the exhibition — and one of the things he admires most about Africans. In his travels, he said, he's met many African worshippers who mingle many traditions, even having different members of the same family peacefully following different faiths. Mami Wata devotees may incorporate elements of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and the occult.
"Africa has for many centuries been connected with other lands," Drewal said. "It's not a dark continent. It's our view of Africa that's dark, not Africa itself."
What: "Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas," an exhibition of 100 sculptures, paintings, masks and other pieces
Where: Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University
When: Through Jan. 2, open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Thursdays until 8.
Info: Go to museum.stanford.edu or call 650-723-4177. Free museum events connected with the show include a talk by Henry John Drewal at 6 p.m. on Oct. 28, and a screening of the documentary film "Mammy Water: In Search of the Water Spirits in Nigeria" at 6 p.m. Nov. 18.
In a related exhibition, "Vodoun/Vodounon: Portraits of Initiates," photos of practitioners of the traditional Fon religion will be shown starting Oct. 13.