Water deities splash down at Fowler Museum

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Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

WATER, as a life-sustaining force and a mighty destroyer, has fascinated humans since the beginning of time, as they migrated through fertile river valleys, settling near rivers and oceans.

Rock paintings made in Africa nearly 28,000 years ago illustrate the reverence for water spirits. Europeans too celebrated the power of sea gods like the Romans’ Neptune (known to the Greeks as Poseidon). They were beguiled by female sirens, imagined water sprites in woodland ponds, and believed in selkies: seals that rise from the waves transformed into beautiful naked humans.

Today, a powerful female water deity remains a vital tradition in Africa and countries of the African diaspora. The many faces of this “Mother Water” will be revealed at the UCLA Fowler Museum in an ambitious exhibition that follows the spirit from Africa to the Caribbean and Brazil in paintings, masks, sculpture and altars. The exhibition, “Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas,” gets its title from the African name for a water deity often depicted as a mermaid with a mane of long hair and a serpent around her neck.


“The myths of mermaids and their human attributes seem to be almost universal,” said guest curator Henry John Drewal. “I think it is because the ocean and its kingdom is beyond our direct experience. We try to create images that transcend the boundaries.

“I think there’s this fascination with this notion of transformations that we think ought to be possible. The transformation of humans into forms,” said Drewal, who is also the Evjue-Bascom professor of Art History and Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Drewal first heard of Mami Wata in 1965 when he was a teacher in Nigeria. He began his research a decade later, when a border dispute between Nigeria and Benin left him stranded in Togo. “In Togo, she was all around me. It seemed to me that she was calling me to pay attention to her,” he said. “I started seeing paintings and murals in her honor and started attending ceremonies in her honor. I said, ‘There’s a message here.’ She kind of seduced me.”

He studied the deity among the Igbo in Nigeria three years later, and went on to study the Brazilian sea goddesses Yemanja and Oshun in Brazil in the 1980s.

Like the early Greek and Roman gods, African deities like Mami Wata possess human weaknesses and foibles, and are imbued with such qualities as jealousy and sexual desire along with their transcendent divine powers. “Some people have this notion that gods and goddesses are backward, but I think they are a recognition of our link to the supernatural and to human and spiritual complexity,” he said. “Other religions simplify those matters, like the duality of good and evil.”

Drewal believes the goddess is a hybrid spirit, born from the meeting of European and African cultures.


A well-traveled spirit

RELIGIOUS figures have always been the subjects of art, from the early Venus fertility figures to the elaborate Byzantine saints and the depictions of the Virgin Mary.

The art history of the Mother Water images is fairly recent, according to the show. Africa had many water spirits and gods when European slavers and traders began to arrive on African shores in ships protected by the bare-breasted wooden mermaids on their prows.

One of the first known mermaids to appear in African art was carved onto a delicate ivory saltcellar created in the late 15th century by an artisan of the Sapi peoples on Sherbro Island. The ornate figurine shows a mermaid, naked from the waist up, swimming with crocodiles in waters at the foot of a ring of tribesmen, as a crocodile climbs a cross above her.

Mother Water quickly traveled up rivers and along seacoasts in Africa. Some trace her name back to Egyptian words for “divinity” and “water,” but Drewal believes Mami Wata is a pidgin English variant of her name. Like pidgin and Creole languages, Mami Wata spread with commerce. She became associated with trade with the outside world, and the mixed blessings it conferred -- paving the way for her to become an early “ ‘capitalist’ deity par excellence,” Drewal said.

When European slavers kidnapped Africans and shipped them through the middle passage, Africans took the water goddess with them. In Haiti, she was reborn as La Sirene, a link to the slaves’ African homeland, the Edenic utopia of Guinee, as well as to the afterlife. In her seminal work on Haitian voodoo, “Divine Horsemen,” Maya Deren describes La Sirene as a sea “goddess of love,” a seductive siren who lives up to her name.


In Brazil she became Yemanja, the Queen of the Sea, whose feast day, Feb. 2, still draws crowds of Brazilians who seek the love and protection of this “Mother of Fish.”

“She became this deity that comes from across the sea” from Africa, Drewal said. “She personifies the meeting of people from the different cultural worlds. Yet those cultural worlds share a belief in water spirits.”

Along the way, Mother Water has become a lightning rod for cultural ambivalence over women’s changing role.

In recent times, evangelical Christian sects in Ghana, and to a lesser extent, Muslim fundamentalists, have attempted to demonize Mother Water as a satanic force, a loose woman who will lead her followers down a lurid path to ruin. In this view, she is a metaphor for the seductive allure of urban life -- with all of its modern pitfalls.

To Drewal, her detractors, regardless of their denomination, represent patriarchal resistance to a powerful woman.

But her followers are fighting back in this culture war. Like the Pentecostalists, her Nigerian adherents have produced songs, CDs, even a television talk show, in support of their deity.


“There’s a religious negotiation going on,” Drewal said. “Mami Wata followers are proselytizing too. I wouldn’t count her out.”