“Mami Wata, often portrayed with the head and torso of a woman and the tail of a fish, is at once beautiful, jealous, generous, seductive, and potentially deadly[.] A water spirit widely known across Africa and the African diaspora, her origins are said to lie ‘overseas,’ although she has been throughly incorporated into local beliefs and practices. Her powerful and pervasive presence results from a number of factors. Of special note, she can being good fortune in the form of money, and as a ‘capitalist’ par excellence, her power increased between the fifteenth and the twentieth centuries, the era of growing international trade between Africa and the rest of the world.
Mami’s powers, however, extend far beyond economic gain. Although for some she bestows good fortune and status through monetary wealth, for others, she aids in concerns related to procreation—infertility, impotence, or infant mortality. Some are drawn to her as an irresistible seductive presence who offers the pleasures and powers that accompany devotion to a spiritual force. Yet she also represents danger, for a liaison with Mami Wata often requires a substantial sacrifice, such as the life of a family member or celibacy in the realm of mortals. Despite this, she is capable of helping women and men negotiate their sexual desires and preferences. Mami also provides a spiritual and professional avenue for women to become powerful priestesses and healers of both psycho-spiritual and physical ailments and to assert female agency in generally male-dominated societies. Rapid socioeconomic changes and the pressures of trying to survive in burgeoning African urban centers have increased the need for the creative powers of Mami Wata priestesses and priests.
Half-fish and half-human, Mami Wata straddles earth and water, culture and nature. She may also take the form of a snake charmer […], sometimes in combination with her mermaid attributes and sometimes separate from them[.] …
… She is a complex multivocal, multifocal symbol with so many resonances that she feeds the imagination, generating, rather than limiting, meanings and significances: nurturing mother; sexy mama; provider of riches; healer of physical and spiritual ills; embodiment of dangers and desires, risks and challenges, dreams and aspirations, fears and forebodings. People are attracted to the seemingly limitless possibilities she represents, and at the same time, they are frightened by her destructive potential. She inspires a vast array of emotions, attitudes, and actions among those who worship her, those who fear her, those who study her, and those who create works of art about her. What the Yoruba peoples say about their culture is also applicable to the histories and significances of Mami Wata: she is like a ‘river that never rests.’”
Henry John Drewal, Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and its Diasporas (Los Angeles, CA: Fowler Museum, 2008), 23, 25.
Images of Mami Wata recur throughout a variety of artworks and media—masks and headdresses, sculptures, paintings, African pop music, and contemporary installation art—and in a number of cultures and religious systems across Africa and the African diaspora (showing up most prominently within the networks of the trans-Atlantic slave trade). And she, of course, figures prominently in Sir Victor Uwaifo’s great 1967 highlife/ekassa song “Guitar Boy,” where he advises, “If you see Mami Wata, never you run away.” (NB: On some releases Uwaifo’s song was called “Guitar Boy & Mamywater.” Younger ears and indie boys might recognize the central riff as the sample used by The Very Best on “Warm Heart of Africa.”) Below is a small cross-section of artworks involving Mami Wata. For more details on Mami Wata and examples of more Mami-inspired art, check out the preview of the Fowler Museum’s 2008 Mami Wata exhibition published in African Arts, and/or the New York Times article (and accompanying slide show) that came out when the exhibition made its way to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art in 2009, and/or just pick up Drewal’s book/exhibition catalog, which will give you all the detail you’ll ever need.
Mask, circa 1970s, Yaure peoples, Côte d’Ivoire, Fowler Museum at UCLA / Photo by Don Cole
John Goba, Headdress, 1980s, Sierra Leone, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Jeremiah Cole / Photo from Fowler Museum at UCLA
and National Museum of African Art
Zoumana Sane, Mami Wata, circa 1987, Senegal, Collection of Herbert M. and Shelley Cole / Photo by Don Cole
Abdal 22, Mami Wata, 1989, Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Private Collection / Photo from Fowler Museum at UCLA
and National Museum of African Art
Moyo Ogundipe, Mami Wata
, 1999, Nigeria/Denver, Colorado, Collection of Chike Obianwu / Photo by Don Cole