Ancient Africa had many water spirits before colonization; among the beliefs and traditions honoring Mami Wata; the African water spirit also known as the African mermaid she has been depicted in many art forms and this research will focus on paintings. To embrace these old traditions with contemporary art work I will compare Mami Wata’s culture with Sonji a Los Angeles based artist; an amazing individual who as well as Mami Wata’s followers has been inspired by Mami Wata’s beauty and spiritual strength.
To give a brief introduction of Mami Wata one must first understand that this is new contemporary concept of art work as well as religious. Societies have created their own belief system therefore Mami Wata is very well known in the West African region, it has become an icon and it is amazing to know that within the religious followers and devotees of Mami Wata; West Africans have created a material culture based on exotic objects and photographs. But she was not always popular in Africa nor the origins of Mami Wata rise from Africa but there is enough evidence to prove that her origins in the very first encounters of Africans and Europeans in the fifteenth century. Her first representations were supposedly from Europeans sailors that had claimed to have seen a water figure or mermaid. (Drewal, J. Henry) From the 19th century and there after she became a popular icon during the trades between Africa, Europe and the East. Her iconic photograph might have gained popularity due to her beauty and sex appeal. One of the images that I will be presenting are evidence on how influential she was and still is, although not all of her images were depicted by an African artists it depicts the African culture of the West; for instance one of the first images that was depicting her was made by a German artist by the name of Schleisinger, ca. 1926, to the African culture it did not matter where it came from because they would still place them within their shrines and altar they have created to honor and worship Mami Wata. One of the images that I will be presenting for this research is name Mami Wata, circa 1987 Zoumana Sane Pigment on glass 40.6 x 30.5 This beautiful image shows Mami Wata in full bloom of sexual appeal holding a snake with both hands as another snake is reaching towards her chest, black thick hair flowing down her back and the assertiveness in her eyes and facial expression shows her in control of both creatures as well as memorizing the viewer with her beauty. The color and patterns are rich and bold representing Africa’s colorful patterns. When I first seen this image I feel in love with her right away; she is irresistible.
But interesting, to learn about the religious and spiritual aspects on following Mami Wata her popularity is not only found in Africa but she is also well known in South America and Europe. This West African culture is enriched with self awareness and originality to represent her. “Devotees of an African water spirit Mami Wata, take exotic objects, interpret them according to indigenous precepts, invest them with new meanings, and then represent them in inventive ways to serve their own aesthetic, devotional and social needs. (Drewall, J. Henry page 308) to fully understand this concept one can relate this with any form of interpretation of not only a culture but also an art perspective of any artist that becomes inspired by a specific culture or art forms and interpret it in their own way. It is acceptable when it refers to Mami Wata, other cultures specially if it is a religious concept can get a bit skeptical in a person of another culture wants to depict their culture or religious objects with art as I had mentioned previously for West Africans this is not the issue; they have focused more on the interpretation.
As this research developed it was interesting to see how an artist that has no knowledge of Mami Wata also became part of this enriched material culture. The contemporary artist that I chose for the comparison of old and new representations of material art is Sonji, a dear close friend that is based from Los Angeles California. To introduce Sonji one has to visualize living among indigenous grounds and by saying this I mean living in a culture enriched with colorful organic art, patterns that connect our blood veins with the drum beat and dance steps of Aztec dancers; feeling each and every sound of sea shells tied to their feet vibrating into the Earth, but yet, being awakened by the sounds of traffic from the streets and freeways of Los Angeles, graffiti walls, and the smell of smog. All of these elements can be found in her art as well as within her soul and perspective towards life. She loves vegetation as well teaching people how to use the Earth, how to respect her as well as learning how to keep a balance within ourselves as one is used to live a daily routine life struggling to find an inner connection with our ancestry. This is a concept that is hard for us to grasp and figure out but through art one can see the world through another eye and one can be influenced by it.
When I introduced Sonji to Mami Wata and the African culture and folk art depicting her, she became immediately interested in the culture and art practices that Mami Wata’s followers have established. It is more interesting to know that Sonji had never heard about Mami Wata and yet her art represents some of the patterns used in her art. As for an introduction of Mami Wata I explained to her how I came across her since I also was a new fan of Mami Wata, I explained to her that I had spoke with my professor about who Sonji was as an individual an artist and that as a result Professor Klemm introduced Mami Wata to me. This blew Sonji’s mind away because we both had realized that her art did resemble Mami Wata without even knowing her; from that point on this research became a personal experience for knowledge of a complete new culture as well as art form for the both of us. Before this discovery, Sonji and I already had in mind which art piece we would use for this research and it is name “Concrete Indigenous” made in 2006. Acrylic and ink media. This beautiful art piece has a composition that has been divided by the middle of the canvas and which can be flip from top to bottom and still depict the same subject matter. The piece consist of a landscape, mountains, valleys as well as a lake with the sun bright, when one flips the canvas it turns into a nocturnal image, it is the dark skies, the moon and the city landscapes of Los Angeles. What connects this both elements of night and day is a large snake that linked them both by holding on to the moon and the sun with her head and tail. The colors are rich and the patterns of dots and indigenous designs do elaborate the concept of “Concrete Indigenous”. It was a perfect match to Mami Wata’s art work and culture, even though they were both so different by region they both represented a culture enriched by both art appeal and material representation on self identity.
The research and data was obtained through going to galleries, reading books and searching for images on Mami Wata online; Sonji was fascinated by her beauty and for what she represented. As the research evolved so did Sonji, on one of the last meetings that we had before presenting this topic to the class, she admitted to enjoy learning about Mami Wata, she was inspired by her so much that Sonji depicted Mami Wata in a series of canvas; I was amazed to see how Mami Wata had influenced Sonji so much but one thing that Sonji just could not understand were the feeling as to why she was so inspired by her even though she was not African nor practiced any religious beliefs that many devotees have done throughout the decades. And it brought questions to this issue; how can one become connected to a spirit or ancestral culture that has nothing to do with coming from a Hispanic or indigenous background? How can a connection be so genuine? Even I began to have the same sentiments towards Mami Wata, I wanted her to become part of my world as well, was it because she was a strong image and rich culture that was led by a woman for once? Or was it a desire to be like her or be strong and be approved of our achievements and good deeds by her? All of the above I presume, but it all finally made sense in one f the materials that I was using for the research; it finally brought answers to both of us and coincidently they were the answers that we wanted to hear.
On one of the passages that really brought a true connection between Mami Wata and Sonji was the following, just to insure you that this was read and discovered by Sonji herself during one of the meetings that we had during this research;
“Through a process of inversion, artists use alien styles and images to reinforce indigenous ideas. Mami Wata is particularity concerned with alien things because their water spirit is perceived to be “foreign”. They do not use alien objects to understand the ideas of the other, but rather to examine and construct themselves and their own society. As persons who are often troubled by the questions of self identity.”(Drewall, J. Henry)
Sonji was indentifying with a being that was foreign to her and at the same time she was able to form her own perspective as to who Mami Wata was for as well as what she meant for Sonji’s spirituality and eternal balance with materialism and spirituality. Both can be balanced though Mami Wata; there is no need for sabotage of self identity or indigenous background as well as there is no remorse or feeling of betrayal to seek some sort of guidance from another spirit or being that is not part of our ancestry.
It was a privilege to be a part of new profound discovery of self identity and inspiration for Sonji’s life not only as an artist but also as an individual because she always presented herself to be strongly connected to her culture and roots and that was interpreted in her art. As for Mami Wata, she also holds a special place in my home and heart, it is inevitable to resist on converting to Mami Wata, and I could truly understand why the African culture has chosen to turn her into an icon that can be loved by everyone. And although at first it might seem suspicious to create a culture and religion based on materialism and beauty but that is a contemporary concept that has been faced even during the evolvement of pop culture; linking consumer products as things that we worship and adored as well as people that turn into our icons as we wish we were just like them or have a piece or replica of them in our home space, it is all acceptable in the end.
In conclusion, summarizing all of these new findings and self identity discoveries one can trace it back to Ancient Africa, having many water spirits before colonization; among the beliefs and traditions honoring Mami Wata; the African water spirit also known as the African mermaid she has been depicted in many art forms and this research will focus on paintings. To embrace these old traditions with contemporary art work I will compare Mami Wata’s culture with Sonji a Los Angeles based artist; an amazing individual who as well as Mami Wata’s followers has been inspired by Mami Wata’s beauty and spiritual strength.