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Mother Water

The water spirit Mami Wata (Mother Water) is celebrated throughout much of Africa and the African Atlantic. She usually looks like a mermaid, a snake charmer or a combination of both. This imagery grew out of Africa’s interactions with other cultures between the 15th and 20th centuries. As European and later Indian and Lebanese traders arrived in Africa, they brought artifacts and beliefs that intrigued and found resonance among local people. Thus, African water spirits merged with European mermaids, Christian and Muslim saints, and Hindu gods to produce Mami Wata.

Mami Wata is a mighty force: she can bring good fortune, especially money – a facet of her persona that developed as a result of African commerce with other nations. Her very name is pidgin English, a language evolved to facilitate international trade. She is also a nurturing mother, a sexy seductress, a healer of physical and spiritual ills and an embodiment of danger. All these aspects are represented in the exhibition Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diaspora at UCLA’s Fowler Museum.  

The show illustrates how the beliefs, depictions and reception of Mami Wata developed over time in various parts of the world, first in Africa, then in the Americas after African slaves were transported there. On the new soils – Haiti, Brazil and the Dominican Republic – Mami Wata took on new guises and powers.

The exhibition takes the viewer on a fascinating visual and cultural journey through a wide array of traditional and contemporary arts: sculpture and painting, masks and altars, beaded panels and video installations created in west and central Africa, the Caribbean, Brazil and the United States. Since the show is presented by a university museum, the text accompanying objects and different sections is quite informative, so one both enjoys the artwork and learns a great deal along the way.

Some of the most fascinating works illustrate cross-cultural interactions and conflicts. One set of sculptures depicts Mami Wata as a mermaid and snake charmer with the multiple hands of a Hindu deity – the result of African encounters with Indian traders. A series of paintings from Ghana, where Pentecostal Christianity has condemned Mami Wata as a demonic force seducing men away from the path of righteousness, shows her as muscular, aggressive and evil. An altar for Santa Marta la Dominadora, a version of Mami Wata revered in the Dominican Republic, blends African with Christian elements and casts the saint as a domineering woman who inverts the story of Eve in the Garden of Eden by controlling the snake and wielding power over destructive forces. And this is just the tip of this cultural iceberg.

The exhibition runs through August 10, 2008 at the Fowler Museum at UCLA.  For more information, call (310) 825-4361 or visit www.fowler.ucla.edu

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