Emory Report
September 14, 2009
Volume 62, Number 3



Emory Report homepage  

September 14, 2009
Snake charm: A diva comes home

Jessica Stephenson is associate curator of ancient African art at the Michael C. Carlos Museum.

For the past two years one of the Carlos Museum’s most impressive African art works, an almost life-sized Ibibio carving of Mami Wata, has been on national tour as part of the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History’s exhibition, “Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and its Diaspora.” The exhibition opened at the Fowler Museum before traveling to the Chazen Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the Museum for African Art, Washington, D.C. Also included in the exhibit were two other Carlos Museum Mami Wata art works: a red marionette figure also carved by an Ibibio artist, and a figure group from southern Nigeria that emulates Indian carves of the Hindu deity Hanuman.

Allowing the large Carlos Museum Mami Wata sculpture to go on tour generated much debate at the Carlos Museum since it is such a seminal piece, and because of its fragile kaolin-covered surface. So, while on tour, she was treated to the highest standard of museum care: Carlos Museum conservator Renee Stein gave her a conservation-full-body-spa-treatment, she traveled in an ultra cushioned packing case, received extra attention from Fowler conservation staff who wrote often to confirm her well-being, and she basked in only the finest of climate-controlled environments.

Such care befits not only this particularly fragile artwork, but also the powerful spirit it represents.

Who is Mami Wata?
Mami Wata, which translates as “Mother Water” in West African pidgin English, is a femme fatale water spirit with a global following from Lagos to Los Angeles, and Havana and beyond. However, Mami Wata has a darker side; she is all diva: she can be beautiful, seductive, loving, and generous when treated well, but if angered or ignored, turns jealous and vengeful, an outright Medusa like Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction.” As Henry Drewal, curator of the exhibit wrote: “Mami Wata is … at once … 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.”

What are her powers?

As her name indicates, Mami Wata is a spirit of water: deep oceans, gentle rivers and tempestuous tides. Not only is water an essential element of life, but it is a vehicle for global flows in trade and modernity (for better and for worse). She is the “capitalist deity par excellence.” It is Mami Wata who assists with the purchase of a new car, the procurement of a better job, entrance to university, a good mortgage rate, and excellent returns on stocks and bonds. In thanks, followers deck her altars with expensive imported goods including alcohol, perfume, talcum powder, cigarettes, jewelry and other luxuries.

How is Mami Wata represented in art?

In art, Mami Wata takes many forms, but most often she is either a mermaid-like being (half-fish, half human), or as a snake charmer and, sometimes in combination with mermaid characteristics as is the case in both the Carlos Museum Mami Wata images. She can take snake-charmer form: a woman’s torso wreathed in snakes; because, say the Ibibio peoples who carved this work, “she is hiding her secret” (her tail and thus other-worldy nature).

That mermaid image may have been inspired by the figureheads of European trading and slave vessels that visited Nigerian ports as early as the 16th century. Another possible imported source for Mami Wata images is a German print of a Hindu snake charmer, introduced into Nigeria in the early 20th century. These imported images — mermaid and snake charmer — were reinterpreted according to ancient indigenous beliefs about African water spirits. Pale skin represents otherworldly status, luxuriant long hair refers to the dada locks worn by spiritually-marked individuals in West Africa, and the snakes are pythons sacred in West African belief.

Where can one see Mami Wata?

Our Mami Wata sculpture returned to Emory in mid-August. When next you see her on display in the expanded African galleries in 2011, remember, as musician Sir Victor Uwaiofo observed, “Eeh, if you see Mami Wata, never you run away.” Stick around and reap good fortune.

Read more.