Sunday, January 11, 2009

Mami Wata, two unexpected finds, and a feather.

Last week I finally made it over to the Chazen Art Museum, which is here in Madison and part of the UW.
They had an exhibit called "Mami Wata" on that I wanted to see: it was a showcase featuring various depictions of the Water Goddess within a few different cultures. The focus was primarily on West African depictions, but they also had a few pieces that were Indian in origin (related to the Nagas, I guess? Though there wasn't any information about that on the walls) and also Mami Wata manifested as Santa Ana in some depictions from the Americas.
Mami Wata is apparently quite a polarizing force. Some see her as a powerful goddess that will bring you wealth, prosperity and luck, but if your cross her, Watch Out. There was one painting in particular of a man who seduces (or is seduced by) Mami Wata along a shoreline. Mami Wata sheds her mermaid tail, they make love, and he is afterwards blessed with fortune. But when Mami Wata sees that the man gets caught up in material possessions (there is a panel of the man with a house, car, etc), she kills him the next time he visits her.
Mami Wata seems to be a manifestation of the fierce feminine: she'll give and take in equally dramatic measures. Many depictions seemed to accept this as part of Mami Wata's inherent power and divinity. Others, (and this is where the polarizing part comes in), see her as a manifestation of the 'devil'. She is often depicted as a mermaid, but just as often as a woman with a snake- a kind of evil dominatrix type. Some paintings in the exhibit focused upon that dark sexuality and presented it as something to be feared. There was one painting of a monk in robes in the water warning people of the mermaid, another where someone was dousing Mami Wata with a fire hose.
Even more interesting was when I got to the pieces from the Americas/Caribbean: one in particular was a video from either Haiti or Santo Domingo where a woman was video taped being possessed by a Mami Wata-like snake goddess: the woman was writhing in a chair and spitting her tongue out. She was videotaped next to her altar of plastic catholic-merging-'primitive' icons and candles.

I wish I had pictures of that exhibit to share, but alas, no photography allowed in Mami Wata. So, though completely different, I want to share 2 unexpected finds, also from the Chazen. Before I got to Mami Wata, I walked a little through the permanent collection and saw these two gems. They're by really famous artists but I'd never seen them before:

Grant Wood! You know, the "American Gothic" guy? I have to admit I never looked much deeper into his other work, but really immediately liked this painting. The woman's expression is hard to read; she's holding a plum and a spring chick.

And then this one. I go back and forth on how I feel about Ms. O'Keefe, but I definitely like this simple still life of turkey feathers. Maybe I just like feathers. Case in point:

I'm trying to dress up my maternity clothes with a little funny applique. A felt blue jay feather.

Meanwhile the snow keeps falling and a new exhibit is slated to go up at the Chazen soon.

1 comment:

Douglas Yaney said...

Hi Megan. My name is Doug Yaney. I used to own an art gallery in Atlanta by the name of YANZUM Gallery. Toward the end of the 1990s I did a show with the Canadian consulate of stone carvings by the Inuit people from the Canadian Arctic. I was amazed to find they have their own version of Mami Wata called Sedna. She is sometimes depicted as a mermaid with human head, sometimes with a walrus head. I was already familair with Mami Wata because I sell African art and Haitian art and have had various versions over the years. I have a beautiful 6 ft tall one from Haiti made from an oil drum.
My good friend Jeremiah is from Sierra Leone and he has several Mami Wata pieces. If you or anyone else would like to see them, let me know and I'll get the photos for you. He's the one who found you on this blog and called to ask me to write to you. I can be reached at - you can see my website galley at Jeremiah has around 50 Mami Wata figures and one in particular is now on display at UCLA. Let me know if you want more information and I'll get it for you. Thanks for your time.