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Sunday, September 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 55.0° F  Partly Cloudy
The Paper
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Creator and destroyer Mami Wata flows at the Chazen
One multifaceted African water spirit
Mami Wata appears in numerous guises.
Mami Wata appears in numerous guises.

The title of the Chazen Museum of Art's new exhibition, Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas, is telling. Note that it's not arts about water spirits; it's arts for water spirits, in the sense that the makers of these artworks are invested in Mami Wata's powers and possibilities, both good and bad. We're talking connection, not mere depiction.

Mami Wata (her name is pidgin English for "Mother Water") is an African water spirit thought to reside in rivers, seas and other bodies of water. She's remarkable in her multivalence. She appears in numerous guises, most frequently as a mermaid or snake charmer, and has associations that are both positive and negative, from nurturing mother to dangerous temptress.

The imagery surrounding Mami Wata spans geography, centuries and religious traditions. The show helps demonstrate how African religious traditions have become commingled with imagery from Christianity, Hinduism and other world religions.

The Chazen's large-scale exhibition is a bit daunting in its size and profusion, but it's also exciting for the same reasons. It traces Mami Wata and related imagery from their origins to the early 21st century. You'll find everything from wooden sculptures, masks and textiles to paintings and video installations.

Just as I was beginning to feel a bit overloaded, the words of a contemporary artist based in Milwaukee helped crystallize the meaning of water spirits in African and African diaspora cultures. In a statement next to his piece Our Lady of the Sacred Waters, a small, wall-mounted shrine, Gerald Duane Coleman writes: "Historically, water has played a dominant role in black faith, music and literature. African Americans have always believed a river or ocean could take them 'home' spiritually and physically.... Water has given us tragedy and hope."

From the Middle Passage to the drowning of New Orleans in 2005, to all of the positive and life-affirming connections of water, Coleman's statement makes a profound kind of sense. Few things have water's power to both create and destroy.

One of the most appealing aspects of this show is the way it focuses on the use of Mami Wata imagery in ritual and performance, showing us this art as it has been used and lived. Videos show us performances in countries like the Dominican Republic and Brazil, and a few altars to Mami Wata are included. Eve Sandler's Mami Wata Crossing of 2007 is a modern interpretation, mixing video, audio and a small dressing table set up as a sort of shrine with objects like cowrie shells, cotton and mementos from her grandmother, including a vintage perfume bottle.

The Chazen's exhibition, curated by UW-Madison professor Henry John Drewal, is accompanied by a catalog and a wide array of public events like lectures and films. For details, visit

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