Stanford News Service

Cantor's 'Mami Wata' exhibition spotlights the art of Pan-Africa

Exhibition culminates decades of research on the "in your face" spiritual presence who roams the art of the African diaspora.


Cynthia Haven, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-6184, Anna Koster, Cantor Arts Center: (650) 725-4657,

for immediate release July 28, 2010

By Cynthia Haven

In the summer of 1975, Henry John Drewal recalled that he "heard Mami's call and had to answer." At that point, he became a man if not obsessed, at least heavily preoccupied, with a water spirit.

The epiphany occurred as Drewal was traveling in eastern Ghana. He saw a striking shrine mural – a triptych painted on a wall – that portrayed a beautiful mermaid sitting on a rock. She was combing her hair, framed by images of the Hindu deities Lakshmi and Krishna.

A passerby in Ghana explained that the image, "Mami Wata" ("mother water") is a powerful and awe-inspiring water spirit who dwells in the Volta River. But Drewal, guest curator of an art exhibit devoted to Mami, found out that she was far from a local deity. Mami Wata melded the worlds of mermaids, snake charmers, Brazilian Indian heroes, astrological figures, the Kongo ancestors of Brazil and the gods of India and West Africa.

"From that day forward every turn I took seemed to bring me face to face with Mami Wata," he wrote in a catalogue for the Cantor Art Center's current exhibition.

"Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas," which continues from Aug. 4 through Jan. 2, 2011, explores 500 years of visual cultures and histories of the water deity through sculpture, paintings, masks and altars, from west and central Africa, the Caribbean, Brazil and the United States. Admission is free.

The colorful and provocative exhibition, which began at UCLA's Fowler Museum and continued to the Smithsonian Institution and other venues, concludes at Stanford.

Holland Cotter's New York Times review of the exhibition was euphoric:  "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."

Certainly the 1975 Ghana encounter proved life changing for Drewal, a professor of African and African Diaspora Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Not surprising: He claims Mami is an "in your face" spiritual presence. He met her everywhere. He traveled to Nigeria, the Republic of Benin, Puerto Rico and Brazil to document devotion to her. He found contemporary artists throughout Africa and the African diaspora who dedicate their works to her.

Images of the water spirits have existed in Africa for centuries – from the Niger Delta to Sierra Leone and the Bissagos Islands. Sailors and merchants introduced the mermaid and snake charmer to Africa, infusing existing iconography with a new spirit. The diaspora of the New World gave her new powers of healing and problem solving.  She remains beautiful and dangerous, seductive and protective.

 "While there are many ways to understand historical and contemporary Africa, the portrayal of a spirit through her many incarnations across cultures, spaces, and times is one of the most compelling," Director Marla C. Berns and Curator Mary Nooter Roberts of the Fowler Museum write in a foreword. "The histories of migration and enslavement that define the earliest waves of diasporic movement are made tangible through the connecting thread of a miraculous being who can change the world with the flip of her tail."

The Cantor Arts Center is open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday to 8 p.m. For museum information, call (650) 723-4177.


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