The Draw of MAMi Wata
Sometimes a stroke of bad luck turns out to be a very good thing.
For Henry Drewa, a professor of art history and Afro-American studies at UW“Madison, his blessing in disguise took place in Ghana in 1975. A specialist in Yoruba artwhich he first became interested in while working in Nigeria with the Peace Corps in the sixtieshe had just received a grant to conduct research in Nigeria. But when the border closed unexpectedly, he found himself stuck in Ghana.
Thats when he began to notice shrines, temples and statues dedicated to Mami Wata, a water deity believed to bring health, wealth and good fortune. Everywhere I turned, she was there, he says.
Intrigued by what he saw, Drewal quickly adjusted his plans.
The more I stayed there the more I saw how vibrant Mami Wata worship was, he says. So I stayed and worked on that topic.
And hes continued working on the topic for over thirty years. All of this research has culminated in Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas, an exhibition exploring five hundred years of the visual culture and history of water deities.
Drewal curated the exhibition, which was organized and started at the Fowler Museum at UCLA in April. From October 18 to January 11 it will be showcased at Madisons‚Â Chazen Museum of Art. Then it will travel on to the National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC; the Mariners Museum in Newport News, Virginia; and the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University.
The exhibition reveals the great diversity of media used to honor Mami Wata. Sculpture, masks, costumes, paintings, prints and multimedia works show the many faces of water spirits. And that the works come from west and central Africa, the Caribbean, Brazil and the United States show how widespread worship of Mami Wata has become.
There are other visual and belief histories with movement across time and space, Drewal says. But water has always intrigued us, especially the sea.
Not surprisingly, the natureand imageryof Mami Wata worship changed as it traveled and was met with new influences. For instance, in the fifteenth century European ships and coins made their way to Africa, merging images of mermaids with hybrid aquatic creatures found in indigenous rock paintings, masks and sculptures.
It really starts to flourish in Africa at this first contact, Drewal says.
As enslaved Africans were moved across the Atlantic, their traditions became part of local spiritual practices. And the image of the snake charmer was incorporated into Mami Wata visual culture in the late 1800s after a German poster reached West Africa; it was soon interpreted as an African water spirit. Later, traders from India brought prints of Hindu gods and goddesses to Africa, where they were adapted into female and male water spirits.
While his research on Mami Wata is intensive, Drewal is not the only scholar interested in the subject. In fact, he invited many of his colleagues to write articles for the exhibition catalog. And hes also about to publish a large edited volume with forty-six contributions from academics, priests, artists and photographers offering unique perspectives on Mami Wata. The book will include a DVD with images, music, poetry and film clips.
And while many Madisonians likely arent familiar Mami Wata, Drewal thinks the city is a natural host for the exhibition.
We live on an isthmus, he says. We live between two bodies of sacred water.
The Chazen is holding a variety of events related to Mami Wata. For more information, visit chazen.wisc.edu.
source: Liberal Arts Madison Magazine