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 Côte 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.
Face mask with superstructure of a female figure with a snake, Mami Wata, and a smaller figure of a snake charmer. Face mask has scarification, thin slit eyes, mouth showing teeth and double parted or braided coiffure. Mask is painted in bright colors of red, black, brown, yellow, blue and green.
Eliot Elisofon, New York, -- to 1973
Currents: Water in African Art, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., June 2016-ongoing
Artful Animals, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., July 1, 2009-July 25, 2010
Masks: Faces of Culture, Saint Louis Art Museum, October 8, 1999-January 1, 2000; Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, February 19-April 14, 2000; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, June 25-October 1, 2000
The Stranger Among Us, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., March 24-September 7, 1982
Nunley, John W. and Cara McCarty. 1999. Masks: Faces of Culture. New York: Harry N. Abrams, pp. 150, 318, no. 71.