At once beautiful, protective, seductive, and dangerous, the water
spirit Mami Wata (Mother Water) is celebrated throughout much of Africa
and the African Atlantic. A rich array of arts surrounds her, as well
as a host of other aquatic spirits--all honoring the essential, sacred
nature of water. Mami Wata is often portrayed as a mermaid, a snake
charmer, or a combination of both. She is widely believed to have
"overseas" origins, and her depictions have been profoundly influenced
by representations of ancient, indigenous African water spirits,
European mermaids, Hindu gods and goddesses, and Christian and Muslim
saints. She is not only sexy, jealous, and beguiling but also exists in
the plural, as the mami watas and papi watas who comprise part of the vast and uncountable "school" of African water spirits.
Mami Wata's presence is pervasive partly because she can bring good
fortune in the form of money. As a "capitalist" deity par excellence,
her persona developed between the fifteenth and twentieth centuries,
the era of growing trade between Africa and the rest of the world. Her
very name, which may be translated as "Mother Water," is pidgin
English, a language developed to facilitate trade. Countless enslaved
Africans forcibly brought to the Americas as part of this "trade"
carried with them their beliefs, practices, and arts honoring water
spirits such as Mami Wata. Reestablished, revisualized, and revitalized
in the African Atlantic, Mami Wata emerged in new communities and under
different guises, among them Lasirèn, Yemanja, Santa Marta la
Dominadora, and Oxum. African--based faiths honoring these
manifestations of Mami Wata continue to flourish in communities
throughout the Americas, including Haiti, Brazil, and the Dominican
This exhibition explores the visual cultures and histories of Mami
Wata, examining the world of water deities and their seductive powers.
It demonstrates how art both reflects and actively contributes to
beliefs and religious practices, globalization, and capitalism. Most of
all, it reveals the potency of images and ideas to shape the lives of
people, communities, and societies.
Mami Wata is a complex symbol with so many resonances that she feeds
the imagination, generating, rather than limiting, meanings and
significances. She is at once a nurturing mother; sexy mama; provider
of riches; healer of physical and spiritual ills; and embodiment of
dangers and desires, risks and challenges, dreams and aspirations,
fears and forebodings. People are attracted to the seemingly endless
possibilities she represents and, at the same time, frightened by her
destructive potential. She inspires a vast array of emotions,
attitudes, and actions among those who worship her, fear her, study
her, and create works of art about her.
Mami Wata and the innumerable mami and papi wataspirits have many faces, and their identities rarely remain constant.
As conditions change, so do the attributes, personalities, and actions
of these fascinating and enigmatic water spirits. When taken together,
the 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.
As with the arts dedicated to her, the worship of Mami Wata as a
specific spiritual entity is not a unified, homogenous phenomenon.
Instead, it reveals an extremely diverse and fluid set of beliefs and
practices that both reflect and guide social and religious worlds.
There are many expressions of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism,
Buddhism, and other faiths, and this is perhaps even more true of the
worship of Mami Wata and water spirits in Africa.
Sacred waters bathe the histories of African peoples--waters of life,
departure, and return. Sometimes they appear as tears of deep sorrow,
sometimes as soothing and cooling streams sustaining existence and
hope. Water connects world with otherworld, life with afterlife. Among
Africans dispersed across vast oceans, these waters are emblematic of
the ultimate journey back home to Africa and all those distant yet
living ancestors. In Haiti, it is the journey home to Guinee across the
rippling boundary of existence, imagined as a vast expanse of water
that exists between life and afterlife. This is the abode of Lasirèn,
La Baleine, Agwe, Simbi, Yemanja, Watra Mama, and all the water
divinities of Africa and the African Atlantic. Their names are
regularly invoked to strengthen the determination needed to endure the
hardships and challenges of lives scattered and torn asunder by the
avarice, arrogance, and brutality of those who would enslave others for
their own benefit. The arts for African Atlantic gods and goddesses
evoke complex emotions, hopes, and dreams as well as fears and
nightmares. They may recall a sorrowful, troubled past, yet they offer
hope and inspiration for a better future and the promise of an
In addition to their continually transforming histories of influence in
Africa and its diasporas, Mami Wata and other African and African
Atlantic water spirits have gained an even wider audience, as well as
new meanings and import, by capturing the imaginations of a number of
contemporary artists. This section 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 a highly
intriguing subject matter. Even though they may not worship her, Mami
Wata has entered the dreams and waking hours of these artists, seducing
them into creating extraordinary works that open our eyes, minds, and
imaginations to wonderful possibilities. The unique understandings and
involvements of contemporary artists with water spirits also allow them
to employ Mami Wata and other underwater denizens to address issues of
gender, race, morality, identity, economics, environment, and politics.
Often appearing with the head and torso of a woman and the tail of
a fish, Mami Wata straddles earth and water, culture and nature. 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.
This section of the exhibition presents a broad overview of some of the
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, global examples that demonstrate the
transcultural nature of Mami Wata, and contemporary ideological and
theological controversies concerning good and evil.