Arts + Culture

Exhibition on African water spirits opens at Fowler Musem April 6

Beautiful and seductive, protective yet dangerous, the water spirit Mami Wata (Pidgin English for "Mother Water") 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.
"Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas," a traveling exhibition debuting at the Fowler Museum at UCLA on April 6, explores the visual cultures and histories of Mami Wata through a dynamic presentation of the arts surrounding her, including sculptures, paintings, masks, altars and more from West and Central Africa, the Caribbean, Brazil and the United States. The exhibition will be on display through Aug. 10.
"Mami Wata has been the object of my affection, and study, for more than 30 years," said guest curator Henry John Drewal, 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. "I guess I took to heart the words in a famous song by the Nigerian musician Sir Victor Uwaifo: 'If you see Mami Wata, oh, never you run away!'"
Sources and Currents: Who Is Mami Wata?
The exhibition opens with "Watertime," a large video projection by artists David and Hi-jin Hodge that brings the ocean — so sacred to Mami Wata — into the gallery. Against this backdrop, a selection of key objects provides an overview of movements, images and ideas that have played major roles in the arts for Mami Wata. These include African images celebrating ancient and indigenous water spirits, as well as global examples that demonstrate the transcultural nature of Mami Wata.

Several masks from Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Guinea-Bissau and elsewhere featuring elaborate carvings of mermaids, snakes and marine life attest to the pervasiveness of water spirit imagery in Africa. Evidence indicates that the concept of Mami Wata has its source in the first momentous European-African encounters in the 15th century, and an ivory saltcellar bearing the earliest known African image of a mermaid is displayed here; created by an African carver, it was commissioned by a visiting Portuguese client who supplied the European mermaid image. Mermaids may have also been introduced in the form of figureheads on European ships, including the gilded example shown in this part of the exhibition.

Like the mermaid, images of snake charmers also merged with African water spirits. Not long after its publication in Hamburg around 1887, a chromolithographic poster of the Samoan snake charmer Maladamatjaute reached West Africa, likely through African sailors or European merchants. A later edition of this iconic image is displayed in this section. In Africa, the poster had a dramatic and almost immediate impact. By 1901, the snake charmer had already been interpreted as an African water spirit, translated into a three-dimensional carved image and incorporated into water spirit headdresses in the Niger River Delta region of Nigeria. Examples of this snake charmer–Mami Wata hybrid appear on the glass paintings and prints displayed in this section.
By the early 20th century, traders from Lebanon and India began to arrive in Africa. Images in Indian books, pamphlets, films and popular devotional chromolithographs came to have a profound impact. The popularity of the snake charmer poster and the Indian presence in West Africa led to a growing fascination with prints of Hindu gods and goddesses. Some Mami Wata devotees began to interpret these deities as representations of a host of mami and papi wata spirits associated with specific bodies of water. Using these prints as guides, they expanded the pantheon of water spirits, fostering a growing complexity in Mami Wata worship, which came to include elements of Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and other faiths. This complex fusion of beliefs and images is exemplified in paintings, sculptures and prints in this gallery, such as a headdress from Sierra Leone representing a local water divinity that features a Hindu forehead mark, or bindi, and snakes piled on the head, recalling both Mami Wata's snake charming attributes and her mermaid's tail.

More recently, Ghana has become the site of a burgeoning film and video industry that often reflects the dramatic rise of Pentecostal Christianity and its concern with satanic forces. In this context, Mami Wata is recast as a demon working with the devil. Often depicted with a muscular, aggressive appearance, this version of Mami Wata is perhaps designed to evoke fear, as she condenses the eroticism of the forbidden yet compelling pleasures of modern urban life. Several paintings and a movie poster in this area show this menacingly seductive — and sometimes demonized — version of the deity.

Mami Wata in Cultural Context
Mami Wata and the innumerable mami and papi wata spirits have many faces, and their identities rarely remain constant. As conditions change, so do their attributes, personalities and actions. Case studies presented in this section reveal striking differences, as well as remarkable similarities, in the beliefs and expressive arts for Mami Wata and her cohorts in Africa.

First, a selection of Mami Wata headdresses and masks made during the 1970s and 1980s for masquerades in Freetown, Sierra Leone, shows how young men at that place and time were concerned about the spiritual and economic powers of women, who had increasingly entered the workplace. Because women were thought to have greater powers than men, men sought the help of Mami Wata in their dealings with the opposite sex. Representations of Mami Wata in Freetown take the form of dramatically sensual masquerades with ornate headpieces.

In Cte d'Ivoire, the educational and humorous performances of Baule and Guro entertainment masquerades often give Mami Wata a place of prominence. Baule artists use her image to symbolize novelty, fashionable elegance and modernity. This is especially true in portrait masks displayed here that praise the beauty and status of the mask's female owner. In private ritual contexts, images of Mami Wata can represent a person's "spirit spouse," the spiritual guardian-partner of a man or woman. Several such "spirit spouse" sculptures appear here as well.
The peoples who inhabit the coastal region from Ghana to Togo and Benin have an intimate association with the sea and worship a vast pantheon of spiritual entities, of which Mami Wata is one. Works honoring Mami Wata, such as the handmade wooden and terra cotta figures in this gallery, are placed in shrines and temples to seek her protection and healing. An actual shrine is recreated to show how such objects would function to propitiate the spirit.
Ensembles from a Brazilian-inspired masquerade in Ouidah, Benin, show the role that Mami Wata plays among the Agudas, descendants of a multi-ethnic mix of liberated and repatriated Africans from Brazil. A video of this event, as well as sculptures and masks from the Ibibio and Igbo peoples of southeastern Nigeria, illustrate Mami Wata's role in their cultures, while numerous popular paintings from the Democratic Republic of the Congo suggest how Mami Wata plays an important role in Central African urban culture and spiritual practices.
Mami's Sisters in the African Atlantic
Africans taken to Haiti aboard slave ships brought with them strong traditions of fishtailed and water-related spirits, which were incorporated into Vodou, a complex and sophisticated religion honoring spiritual entities known as lwa. Water enters the Haitian Vodou cosmology in many ways. Marine spirits like the mermaid Lasirn, for instance, symbolize the lwa of the water, and are represented in this section on glittering sequined flags, sculptures, paintings and elaborate mixed-media altars.
A recreation of an altar for Santa Marta la Dominadora in the Dominican Republic, as well as a video of one in use, illustrates the evolution of Mami Wata's image as she crossed the Atlantic. In this altar, the black, or African, Saint Martha is strong and domineering, surrounded by snakes and serpents. She inverts the story of Eve in the Garden of Eden as she controls the snake and embodies extraordinary female power over negative, destructive forces.

Meanwhile, every Feb. 2, along the northeast coast of Brazil, descendants of enslaved Africans, as well as many others, turn their eyes and thoughts toward the watery horizon and pray to Yemanja — considered the queen of the sea," Mother Water" and the "Mother of Fish" — seeking her love, support, protection and guidance. This gallery features a range of objects associated with Yemanja's festival, including beautiful ensembles and regalia for a priestess, as well as a video of the celebration.
Mami Wata as Artists' Muse
In addition to their influence in Africa and its diasporas, Mami Wata and other African and African Atlantic water spirits have gained an even wider audience, and new meanings and import, by capturing the imaginations of contemporary artists. The final gallery of the exhibition features the work of several artists — men and women from Africa, Europe, North America and the Caribbean — who have found in Mami Wata and her cohorts an intriguing subject. Works here include paintings, etchings and sculptures by artists including Alison Saar, Sonya Clark, Bruce Onobrakpeya, Twin Seven-Seven, Claudette Schreuders and Edouard Duval-Carri.
Additional Information
After debuting at the Fowler Museum, "Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas" will be on display at the Chazen Museum of Art at the University of Wisconsin–Madison from Oct. 18, 2008, to Jan. 11, 2009; the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art from April 1 to July 26, 2009; the Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Virginia, from Jan. 29 to Aug. 16, 2010; and Stanford University's Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts from Oct. 6, 2010, to Jan. 2, 2011.
This exhibition was made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional support for accompanying programs was provided by the James Irvine Foundation, the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation, the Yvonne Lenart Public Programs Fund, the Jerome L. Joss Fund, the Shirley & Ralph Shapiro Director's Discretionary Fund, the Hitachi Foundation, and Manus, the support group of the Fowler Museum at UCLA.

The Fowler is open Wednesday through Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. and Thursday from noon to 8 p.m. The museum is closed Monday and Tuesday. The Fowler Museum, part of UCLA Arts, is located in the north part of the UCLA campus. Admission is free. Parking is available for $8 in Lot 4. For more information, the public may call (310) 825-4361 or visit
Related Programs

Saturday, April 5
5 p.m.
Fowler OutSpoken Lecture:
Henry J. Drewal — "Mermaids, Snake Charmers, Sirens and Saints: The Many Faces of Mami Wata"
Curator and art historian Drewal traces the history and evolution of Mami Wata. Drawing on art and imagery from Africa, the Caribbean, Brazil and the United States, he identifies the many sources, including African deities, European mermaids, Hindu gods and goddesses, snake charmers, and Christian and Muslim saints, that have merged through the years to embody this celebrated figure of the African and African Atlantic world.
Saturday, April 5
6–8:30 pm
Members' Opening and Preview Party
Dive into a vibrant nighttime undersea adventure, when the Fowler Museum is transformed into a beguiling, seductive world of larger-than-life sea creatures and mischievous water spirits. Celebrate the dynamic creative power of Mami Wata with surprises to tempt all your senses. Sea-life inspired costumes encouraged! R.S.V.P. by Friday, March 28, at (310) 206-0306 or Not a member? Join online at  

Sunday, April 6
Noon–5 p.m.
Opening Day: "Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas"
1–4 p.m.
Kids in the Courtyard: "A Mermaid's Tail"
Get ready for the April 19 festival, "Splash! A Celebration of Mermaids and the Sea," by fashioning watery wear perfect for a merfolk masquerade at this drop-in art workshop.
2–4 p.m.
Fowler OutSpoken Panel: "Mami as Muse"
The work of contemporary artists from Africa and the Americas demonstrates the power and continuity of Mami Wata as a source for creative inspiration. Visual artists Bolaji Campbell, Eve Sandler and Sonya Y. Clark, along with filmmaker Giovanni Savino, discuss their works in the Fowler's current exhibition in this conversation led by curator Henry Drewal.
Saturday, April 19
11:30 a.m.–3:30 p.m.
Festival: "Splash! A Celebration of Mermaids and the Sea"
The Fowler welcomes all ages to a fun-filled celebration of art, mermaids, the environment and more. Enjoy unforgettable performances by dance sensation Viver Brasil and the Los Angeles-based, Congo-inspired group Balobi Bandeko; fabulous art workshops; water-science attractions, including sea-creature touch tanks (provided by community partner Heal the Bay); and a variety of food and vendor booths. Dress up as a group or on your own, and take part in our merfolk procession honoring Mami Wata. For a detailed schedule, or to download a parade application, visit
Sunday, June 1
2 p.m.
Fowler OutSpoken Lecture:
Marilyn Houlberg — "From Seduction to Death and Beyond: The Lure of Lasiren, the Mermaid Queen in Haitian Vodou"
Anthropologist and art historian Marilyn Houlberg discusses the water spirits of Haitian Vodou, including Lasirn, the beautiful but potentially deadly mermaid; Mami Wata, the snake charmer; and other spirits ranging from snakes to winged dragons. Houlberg will consider how Lasirn, who lives beneath the surface of the sea in a bejeweled domain, and others (who manifest themselves in violent storms, waterfalls and even quiet dew) are depicted by artists in beaded and sequined ceremonial flags, temple wall murals and altars, as well as through dance, in documentaries and Hollywood films.

Sunday, June 29
1–4 p.m.
Kids in the Courtyard: "Charmed by a Snake"
Search the exhibition for images of Mami Wata as a snake charmer and then get up close and personal with live pythons and their reptile friends, brought to the Fowler by World Famous Lizard Boy's Mobile Zoo.
Sunday, June 29
4 p.m.
Summer Sunset Concert
Details to be announced.
KidsMuse Summer Art Camp 2008
Art-making activities and more, in conjunction with "Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas." (Session 1, ages 6 to runs from July 14 to 18; Session 2, ages 9 to 12, runs from July 21 to 25. Cost is $100 for members, $150 for nonmembers.) For more nformation, please call (310) 825-7325. 
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