Mami Wata

Ibibio, early to mid 20th Century
Wood, kaolin, pigment
Gift of William S. Arnett

The potential for creation and destruction, protection and cruelty, bestowing blessings and good fortune or inflicting pain and wreaking havoc lies in many spirits—these dichotomies are the very attributes that make them powerful. Mami Wata, a pidgin term for a water spirit, is particularly powerful, but also impulsive. Though the water spirit is an old concept, scholars suggest that twentieth-century Nigerian depictions of Mami Wata are based on a nineteenth-century German lithograph of Maladamatjaute, a Samoan snake charmer. Some examples imitate her wild hair and performance costume, but the Mami Wata displayed here is more abstracted. The red base coat reflects her hot, aggressive temperament, but the thick layer of kaolin, applied by her devotees, cools her down. Pythons, which constrict their prey to death, wrap around her. The snakes are revered in Nigeria as unpredictable and powerful; it is good fortune to find one in your house and bad luck to remove it. Mami Wata would have been placed on an altar and offered alcohol, perfume, jewelry, and other luxury items to encourage her favor and win her loyalty.