Modernity and mystery: Mami Wata in African art (Page 1)
Original Oil Paintings Gallery
Contemporary African art is characterized by the invention and
construction of new meanings and contexts for the exotic and traditional.
Devotion to Mami Wata is encountered in different forms through
out Africa and she is often portrayed in African art. A discussion
of her portrayal in Africa is therefore a suitable example of
the reconstruction and invention of the popular and the ritual
in African art. In this article I am going to concentrate particularly
on instances of Mami Wata devotion encountered in West and Central
Mami Wata worship is strongly connected to the traditional worship
of water spirits. Traditionally water spirits are believed to
occasionally make an appearance before humans. Descriptions of
this water spirit and its portrayal in African art can vary greatly
from region to region but there are some characteristics that
are commonly assigned to the water spirit such as her fair skin
and long flowing hair. The water spirit is sometimes described
as being accompanied by snakes and guarded by some kind of fierce
animal. Mostly these water spirits are portrayed in African art
as being naked but sometimes they are said to wear jewels and
The names for these water spirits vary from area to area but
most often it will be referred to as Mami Wata to outsiders. Like
many African deities Mami Wata is believed to poses the ability
to do both good and evil. The portrayal of Mami Wata in African
art is characterised by the appropriation of Hindu and Christian
prints in its imagery. The most common print appropriated is an
image of a female snake charmer with the inset of another figure.
This image is based on chromolithograph original printed in Hamburg
in 1883. The print is believed to have arrived in the beginning
of the twentieth century on the West African coast and its influence
has spread throughout Central Africa.
Even though Mami Wata devotion is encountered through out Africa
one must guard against a homogenized description of Mami Wata
devotion. Despite common descriptions found in Mami Wata cults,
it is important to note that the rituals and devotional objects
associated with her worship may differ from region to region.
Another misrepresentation is the over emphasis placed on the influence
of the exotic over the indigenous and traditional in African art.