Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Water Works

Sometimes a stroke of bad luck turns out to be a very good thing.

For Henry Drewal, a professor of art history and Afro-American studies at UW–Madison, his blessing in disguise took place in Ghana in 1975. A specialist in Yoruba art—which he first became interested in while working in Nigeria with the Peace Corps in the sixties—he had just received a grant to conduct research in Nigeria. But when the border closed unexpectedly, he found himself stuck in Ghana.

That’s when he began to notice shrines, temples and statues dedicated to Mami Wata, a water deity believed to bring health, wealth and good fortune. “Everywhere I turned, she was there,” he says.

Intrigued by what he saw, Drewal quickly adjusted his plans.

“The more I stayed there the more I saw how vibrant Mami Wata worship was,” he says. “So I stayed and worked on that topic.”

And he’s continued working on the topic for over thirty years. All of this research has culminated in Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas, an exhibition exploring five hundred years of the visual culture and history of water deities.

Drewal curated the exhibition, which was organized and started at the Fowler Museum at UCLA in April. From October 18 to January 11 it will be showcased at Madison’s Chazen Museum of Art. Then it will travel on to the National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC; the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia; and the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University.

The exhibition reveals the great diversity of media used to honor Mami Wata. Sculpture, masks, costumes, paintings, prints and multimedia works show the many faces of water spirits. And that the works come from west and central Africa, the Caribbean, Brazil and the United States show how widespread worship of Mami Wata has become.

“There are other visual and belief histories with movement across time and space,” Drewal says. “But water has always intrigued us, especially the sea.”

Not surprisingly, the nature—and imagery—of Mami Wata worship changed as it traveled and was met with new influences. For instance, in the fifteenth century European ships and coins made their way to Africa, merging images of mermaids with hybrid aquatic creatures found in indigenous rock paintings, masks and sculptures.

“It really starts to flourish in Africa at this first contact,” Drewal says.

As enslaved Africans were moved across the Atlantic, their traditions became part of local spiritual practices. And the image of the snake charmer was incorporated into Mami Wata visual culture in the late 1800s after a German poster reached West Africa; it was soon interpreted as an African water spirit. Later, traders from India brought prints of Hindu gods and goddesses to Africa, where they were adapted into female and male water spirits.

While his research on Mami Wata is intensive, Drewal is not the only scholar interested in the subject. In fact, he invited many of his colleagues to write articles for the exhibition catalog. And he’s also about to publish a large edited volume with forty-six contributions from academics, priests, artists and photographers offering unique perspectives on Mami Wata. The book will include a DVD with images, music, poetry and film clips.

And while many Madisonians likely aren’t familiar Mami Wata, Drewal thinks the city is a natural host for the exhibition.

“We live on an isthmus,” he says. “We live between two bodies of sacred water.”

The Chazen is holding a variety of events related to Mami Wata. For more information, visit

October 17: A Carnival of Water Creatures
“Mami Wata’s Big Splash!” Lecture by exhibition curator Henry Drewal. 6 p.m., room L140. Free admission.
Mami Wata Costume Reception in Paige Court, 7–9 p.m. $8 members, $12 nonmembers, $5 UW students with I.D.

October 18: Celebrate Water Spirits!: A Family Day 12–4 p.m. Free admission. Children under 12 should be accompanied by an adult.

Sunday October 19: Exhibition Catalogue Signing 2:15 p.m. In conjunction with the Wisconsin Book Festival, curator Henry Drewal will give a brief reading and sign exhibition catalogues.

Docent-led Drop-in Tours
Tuesdays, 4 p.m., November 11–December 16. Meet in Paige Court.

Lectures on Water Spirits
• October 23: “Arts for Water Spirits in HaitianVodou.” Lecture by Marilyn Houlberg, professor, School of the Art Institute of Chicago. 6 p.m., room L150.
• October 30: “Mermaids and End-Time Jezebels: New Tales from Old Calabar.” Lecture by Rosalind I. J. Hackett, distinguished professor in the humanities (professor of religious studies), University of Tennessee. 6 p.m., room L150
• November 25: “Undercurrents: Secrecy, Initiation, and other Sightings of Mami Wata below the Radar.” Lecture by Amy L. Powell, UW–Madison Ph.D. student in art history. 6 p.m., meet in Gallery VII.
• December 4: “Osun and other Yoruba Water Divinities in the African Diaspora.” Lecture by Bolaji Campbell, assistant professor, Rhode Island School of Design. 6 p.m., room L150

Artists Talks
• November 13: “An/atom/y of a Story,” Obiora Udechukwu, professor of art, St. Lawrence University, N.Y. 6 p.m., room L150.
• November 20: “Cool Women and Hot Combs,” Sonya Clark, chair of Craft/Material Studies, School of the Arts, Virginia Commonwealth University. 6 p.m., room L150.

Water Matters: A Lecture Series
Organized by the UW Aquatic Sciences Center and the Department of Art History to enhance public awareness and understanding of water resources in a changing climate. Free and open to the public. For more information call 608 262-0905 or visit
• October 21: MadTown Singers. Keynote address: “The Sacredness of Water,” Patty Loew, associate professor of life sciences communication, UW–Madison. 6 p.m., room L150.
• October 28: “Conversations on Race, Privilege, and the Environmental Movement,” Carolyn Finney, assistant professor of geography, University of California at Berkeley, and Kaylynn Sullivan TwoTrees, artist/activist. 6 p.m., room L150.
• November 6: “History of Wild Rice and its Restoration,” Anthony Kern, associate professor of biology, Northland College. “The Past, Present and Future of Great Lakes Fisheries,” Jim Kitchell, director of the UW–Madison Center for Limnology. 6 p.m., room L150.
• November 11: “Water and the Law: Two Wisconsin Ojibwe Cases,” Larry Nesper, associate professor of anthropology and American Indian studies, UW–Madison. 6 p.m., room L150.
• November 18: “Wisconsin Groundwater Resources,” Anders W. Andren, director of the UW–Madison Aquatic Sciences Center. “Global Warming and its Implications for Wisconsin/Great Lakes Waters,” John J. Magnuson, director emeritus of the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. 6 p.m., room L150.

Film at UW Cinematheque
Free admission. 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue. Doors open at 7 p.m. Titles subject to change. Find more info at
• October 24: Mammy Water (La PĂȘche et le culte de la mer), 1953, and the documentary Le Niger. 7:30 p.m.
• October 25: Faro, la reine des eaux (Faro, Goddess of Water), 2007. 7:30 p.m.

Film at the Wisconsin Union
Free admission. Contact 262-1143 or for more info.
• November 8: Lady in the Water, 2006. 11:59 p.m. Union South, Main Lounge.
• November 10: Big Fish, 2003. 7:30 p.m. Memorial Union, Play Circle
• November 20: Incident at Loch Ness, 2004. 7:30 p.m. Memorial Union, Play Circle

Jazz at the Chazen
November 21: The Onus Trio. 7–9 p.m., room L150.

Images are courtesy of the Chazen Museum of Art.

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