via NYTimes, Art Review | 'Mami Wata':
WASHINGTON — Here’s the plan. We drop whatever humdrum thing we’re doing and leave for Washington. Right away is not too soon. Once there, we head straight to the National Museum of African Art and begin our descent into the galleries, down being the only direction for this subterranean branch of the Smithsonian.
As it turns out, we aren’t going underground. We’re going underwater: down, down, into African water, mid-Atlantic water, Caribbean water, with light, colors and temperatures changing all the way. No need for snorkels or goggles. Art is our oxygen. Nothing should stand between us and it.
As we go, we pass the museum’s permanent collection: masks from Liberia glistening with palm oil, royal figures from the Grassfields of Cameroon, Ghanaian gold, Benin ivories and, from Tanzania, a portrait of President Obama printed on ceremonial cloth.
Finally we reach the museum’s lower galleries and settle there, light as bubbles, as if on the ocean floor, with the sound of tides rolling and shushing above.
What we’ve come for is “Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas.” If the title sounds a bit formal, the exhibition is not. It’s as rousing as a drum roll, as piquant as a samba, as sexy as Césaria Évora’s voice. It’s about glitter and tears, bawdy jokes and baskets of flowers, miracles and mysteries, money in hand and affairs of the heart. It’s about standing at the edge of the sea at dawn and watching a world re-born. In that world no one walks; everyone dances and swims; everyone, that is, who has taken the plunge into Mami Wata’s realm.
Who is Mami Wata? She is Mother Water, Mother of Fishes, goddess of oceans, rivers and pools, with sources in West and Central Africa and tributaries throughout the African Americas, from Bahia to Brooklyn. Usually shown as a half-woman, half-fish, she slips with ease between incompatible elements: water and air, tradition and modernity, this life and the next.
Provider of riches, she is described as the “capitalist deity par excellence” by the show’s curator, John Henry Drewal, a professor of art history at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and as such, she’s a natural bailout savior for our time. But when assailed by qualms over ethics, she can cause trouble, sending Madoffian fortunes onto the rocks with the flick of a fin.
Her beginnings are murky. Sub-Saharan rock paintings of great antiquity depict fish, snakes and human figures swimming together, suggesting that water was long considered a magical, difference-dissolving medium. Beings that combine human and animal features are a fixture of African art.
The image of the mermaid, though, seems to have come from Europe in the 15th century, possibly on prints, playing cards or tattoos. The specific image now identified as Mami Wata crystallized in the late 19th century, after a German print portraying a non-European circus snake charmer had a wide African distribution.
The picture of the woman, with her light-but-not-white skin, cascade of dark hair and long skirt covering what was presumed to be a fish tail, caused a sensation. Her overseas allure was further amplified by an overlay of Hindu influences introduced by South Asian immigrants to Africa, many of them rich merchants.
This ecumenical mix, as intensely exotic in Africa as African art is in the West, still has currency. A Mami Wata dance mask carved by the contemporary artist John Goba of Sierra Leone is a mini-Himalaya of Hindu motifs, with rearing cobras and snarling dragons perched atop a triple-headed goddess. Carved figures of Roman Catholic saints and a crucifixion, with Mami Wata in doleful attendance, turn another mask, this one from Nigeria, into a kind of chapel-chapeau.
But religious emblems are no guarantee of sanctity. To some eyes, particularly those of fundamentalist Christians and Muslims, Mami Wata is plain bad news. Abdal 22, a painter from Congo, depicts her as a henna-haired, Western-style femme fatale with a mirror, a comb and a faraway look. The Pentecostal Christian artist Kwame Akoto, who goes by the professional name Almighty God, presents her even more enticingly, but X-ed out with blood-red lines.
Fluid in form, volatile in temperament, foreign in origin, Mami Wata is feared and reviled as a spiritual loose cannon. Inevitably, she’s been snagged in a net of sexual politics. As women take increasingly active and independent roles in contemporary life, they are perceived as a threat to social stability. Africa is no different in this way from anyplace else. Mami Wata has come to personify feminine power that must be brought into line and tamped down.
“Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas” continues through July 26 at the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, 950 Independence Avenue SW, Washington; (202) 633-4600, africa.si.edu