Wednesday, April 8, 2009

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

On Sunday I went to the African Art Museum to see Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas. The show received a glowing review in the New York Times last week, and since the museum is not on my regular rotation, I always like to get a chance to visit.

The exhibit is built around the water spirit Mami Wata, or Mother Water. Celebrated in African culture, Mami Wata is often portrayed as a mermaid or a snake charmer, or sometimes as both. Representations of her have been influenced by European mermaids, Hindu gods and goddesses and ancient African water spirits, and the exhibit traces her image through the centuries and across continents.

From imposing mermaid figureheads to reverential Dominican altars to glittering flags, Mami Wata does an excellent job exploring how so many different cultures share similar beliefs yet depict the spirit so differently. And that's the thing about Mami Wata; she can be so many different things at once — nurturer, destroyer, good, evil.

The show saves the best for last — in the final room, where Mami Wata has been summoned as an "artists' muse," and everything comes together in the work of contemporary artists. There's Moyo Ogundipe's Mami Wata, above, and D.C. artist Sonya Y. Clark's Aqua Allure, which features the letters M and W repeated over and over again on a panel.

Mami Wata spans hundreds of years, dozens of media, and five continents. Going in, you wouldn't expect so many differences in a show about one spirit, but all these differences work together to craft an all-encompassing portrait of the mythic, yet incredibly important, Mother Water.

And there's just the feel you get when you enter the exhibit — the sound of the ocean reverberates throughout the rooms, walls are painted varying shades of blue, and an image of the ocean is projected above the entrance. There's clearly the feeling that you're elsewhere — which, on a warm day in Washington with tourists milling about, isn't the worst thing.

Moyo Ogundipe (b. 1948, Ijesha-Ishu, Nigeria; active Denver, Colorado)
Mami Wata, 1999
Acrylic on canvas
Collection of Chike Obianwu
Photo by Don Cole

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