Figure | Mami Wata

Female skulpture with snake, 1950 - 1996

About the object

Representation of an African water spirit, Mami Wata. Mami Wata depictions are mostly endowed with female attributes. The Mami Wata cult is mainly practised in West Africa and the Caribbean. The cult combines myth and mythical ideas based on female water deities, mermaids and snake priestesses.
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In large parts of West Africa, Mami Wata (pidgin English: "water mother") is considered a light- skinned deity with its roots overseas. She often forms the central figure of an altar, on which symbols of beauty and Western prosperity are presented, alongside images of Catholic saints and Hindu deities. Mami Wata is also endowed with many contradictory properties, for example, healing and life-giving qualities, but also destructive and harmful powers. Mami Wata is widely feared as the cause of disease and infertility. The Mami Wata cult can probably be traced back to the Hagenbeck Circus in Hamburg, which was known for its ethnological exhibitions circa 1900. One of its posters probably reached West Africa through colonial officials. In the motif of a female snake charmer from the South Seas, Africans recognised an Indian or European water spirit, which was quickly absorbed into religious ideas. The snake fitted into the context of traditional conceptions of a water-spirit, as well as the idea of the connection between snakes, water and rainbows, which was widespread in West Africa. The idea of Mami Wata developed into a hybrid of water deity and snake priestess. Translation: Timothy Connell

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