The Mami Wata figure testifies to the dynamism and creativity with which Africans respond to imported ideas and images. Mami Wata is recognized today by diverse peoples throughout Africa as a powerful water spirit. Her origins can be traced to a late-19th-century German lithograph of a female snake charmer, which appeared in an Indian calendar that circulated widely in western and central Africa. Interested Africans scrutinized the snake charmer's image and invested it with new meaning and a new identity: Mami Wata. They linked her great beauty and foreignness to powers that could provide them protection and wealth in an increasingly precarious world.
Mami Wata devotees established shrines in her honor and developed a corpus of ritual knowledge, practice and visual art, which varies from region to region. This mask from Cote d'Ivoire copies directly from the original lithograph--the upraised, closed left hand, the heavy, black, parted hair and the position of the snake poised over Mami Wata's head. A distinctive feature of this mask is that it includes a small figure of a horn player charming a snake. In the original lithograph, this figure is pictured in a diamond-shaped inset.