It’s rare that the museum world gets excited about woman power. Oh, there’s Mona Lisa and Degas’s dancers and Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon…yawn. Flat, two-dimensional representations of how men regard us. Nothing to see here, folks, move along. So I was delighted to hear about the new “Mami Wata” exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of African Art. Holland Cotter, the esteemed New York Times art critic, visited and apparently had a conversion experience, because he was falling all over himself to worship at the altar of Mami Wata:
Here’s the plan. We drop whatever humdrum thing we’re doing and leave for Washington. Right away is not too soon. Once there, we head straight to the National Museum of African Art. What we’ve come for is “Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas.” If the title sounds a bit formal, the exhibition is not. 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.
Who is Mami Wata? She is Mother Water, Mother of Fishes, goddess of oceans, rivers and pools, with sources in West and Central Africa and tributaries throughout the African Americas, from Bahia to Brooklyn. Usually shown as a half-woman, half-fish, she slips with ease between incompatible elements: water and air, tradition and modernity, this life and the next.
I am so there. What even my fellow Harpies don’t know is that for years, despite being a (relatively) observant Jew, I’ve been deeply fascinated by the African diaspora religions of the New World, known variously as Santeria, Lucumi, Candomble or Voudou. “Mami Wata” is a catch-all term for the different female deities of these religions. All of these powerful female spirits are associated with water, of course; water being the ultimate source of life, creation and abundance (as well as, occasionally, death and destruction). These goddesses and guardian spirits are honored with elaborate altars, usually in homes, and the Smithsonian exhibit celebrates the wildly creative, over-the-top form these altars take:
The tradition of altars to the water goddess surreptitiously crossed the Atlantic during the slave trade. As if to celebrate a release from secrecy, the altars of Haitian voodoo are the most conspicuous things imaginable, visual explosive devices of sequined fabrics and extravagantly dressed dolls.
Despite these confectionary charms, the version of Mami Wata honored in Haiti, known as Lasirèn, is no sweetie. Protector of working women, faithful to those who have faith in her, she is as tough and demanding as a union boss.
The same can be said of Santa Marta la Dominadora, her formidable counterpart in the Dominican Republic. Even with a Christian name, she keeps her African form, meaning — in the twisty way of cultural transfers — that the Mami Wata-as-snake-charmer form derived from 19th-century Europe. Like Lasirèn, she is a force to be reckoned with. Her altar is an imposing one, thick with candles, coins, shells, plastic flowers and mass-produced holy cards.
That’s some serious woman-power right there, ladies. I might be a nice Jewish girl, but Judaism is way patriarchial, and the Afro-Caribbean cults, with their uncompromising vision of female divinity, appeal to a part of me that the religion of my ancestors neglects. And I’m not the only one who’s double-dipping–the majority of people who practice these religions in the Americas are Catholic. Many of these goddesses came to be associated with–or, really, “masked by”–images of the Virgin Mary in the New World, so that newly baptized African slaves could safely and subversively continue their ancestral female-worship in Catholic churches. In 2000, I visited the shrines of both the ocean goddess Yemaya (at the Church of Our Lady of Regla, patron saint of Havana) and the river goddess Oshun (at the Basilica of Our Lady of Cobre, patron saint of Cuba). I came home and set up my own altar to Oshun, who I have been reliably informed is my orisha, or guiding spirit. Above it hangs a painting of Our Lady of Cobre, surrounded by the sunflowers that symbolize the goddess Oshun and dressed in Oshun’s signature yellow. The altar contains treats Oshun is said to enjoy: honey, makeup, rum, mirrors, bells, sweet spices, copper and amber. Since she’s the goddess of love and sensuality, her altar is in my bedroom. How refreshing to find a religion that not only accepts women’s power and sexuality, but actually encourages it as our birthright and gives it a divine spokeswoman!
The best part of the Smithsonian exhibit is that while it’s not advertised as interactive, it kinda is:
Forty years ago such material would never have been admitted to an art museum. But here it is: abundant, alive, interactive. In recent years in other museums similar altars have become objects of worship by devotees . The National Museum of African Art expects that some visitors will make offerings during the run of this show. There is nothing in the galleries to prevent them from doing so.
So if you live in the D.C. area, you really must stop by this exhibit to get a big wet infusion of Mami Wata’s womanly energy. Take a little airplane bottle of booze or a trinket or a flower or two for the altars. It never hurts to be on Mami’s good side. As Holland Cotter says:
It’s not a question of miracles; it’s a matter of having a plan, and Mami has many, many. That’s one reason a visit to her show is urgent. Beauty is another. The experience of seeing belief practiced is a third. Whoever you are, wherever you come from, the deeper you descend into Mami’s realm, the more things start to look up.