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Shrine Figure, Mami Wata Permanent Collection:
Sub-Saharan African Art:
Shrine Figure, "Mami Wata"

Nigeria, Ibibio, Annang. 20th century A.D. Wood, kaolin, pigment, paint. 34 1/4 x 24 x 10 in. (87 x 61 x 25 cm). Gift of William S. Arnett. 1994.3.9

The belief in water spirits is strong in sub-Saharan Africa. This figure represents Mami Wata, a water spirit of the Ibibio, Igbo, and other African people. Depending upon her mood, the spirit is capable of bestowing blessings or inflicting mental and physical pain on those who meet her near the rivers or streams where she dwells. The Ibibio believe that Mami Wata brings material wealth to her followers, but the cost of this good fortune is great, for the price of riches is the loss of fertility. The character of Mami Wata is twofold: she is an ancient and indigenous deity, part of the widespread belief in spirits that live in the waters, but she is most often depicted as an alien creature such as a mermaid. Representations of Mami Wata generally depict her as a woman with light skin and dark flowing hair, wreathed in snakes. This image may have been inspired by the figureheads on European trading and slave vessels that visited Nigerian ports as early as the 16th century. Another source for Mami Wata images is a popular German print of a Hindu snake charmer, believed to have been introduced into Nigeria in the early 20th century. But her luxuriant hair also refers to the dada locks of spiritually marked individuals, and the snakes in fact are pythons sacred to ancient West African belief. In this respect, Mami Wata is a fully African spirit.

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