A fountain inspired by the enchanting architecture of Morocco resides at the center of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, and it is visible from all three floors of the museum. In recognition of the life-giving properties of water, each of the spaces spiraling around this flowing fountain now contain works of art from the museum’s permanent collection that reveal the complex and diverse ways that African artists and communities have responded to water.
Water features frequently in the legends upon which kingdoms and cultures are founded. Dogon historians of Mali recount tales of aqueous primordial ancestors and of a dog discovering a hidden water source during migration to a new home. Dogon carvers depicted these primordial beings in the supports for stools, and a crouching dog –with its head to the ground as if to sniff out water—is now on view on the museum’s third floor Aquatic creatures also inspired many Akan artists who both made castings of water animals, like crabs, and depicted fish and other creatures of the seas in the brass weights they made to weigh gold – a commodity that crossed rivers and oceans both. The iconography of water lends itself to fluid cultural adaptation. Along the west African coast, chromolithographs of a Samoan snake charmer served as inspiration for Mami Wata, a divine being closely associated with the pleasures and temptations traded vast distances along waterways. A Guro artist of the Cote d’Ivoire interpreted the Samoan snake charmer as part of his tribute to Mami Wata within the superstructure of a vividly painted mask. More than 1,000 miles to the east, an Ibibio artist also carved a snake charmer in his representation of Mami Wata, but he carved a half figure independent of a face mask below, although he was equally bold in his selection of pigments!. In part because of the power brought across the water through trade, water imagery is closely tied to rulers. In the Benin Kingdom, the use of coral-bead regalia links back to control of oceanic foreign trade. The royal arts of Benin also frequently incorporate images of mudfish, an extraordinary creature that can burrow beneath the mud, come up for a swim, and flop from one body of water to another. What more poetic emblem could there be to represent the divine power of the royalty to move between human and spiritual realms, even as part of a beard or ruff? The ability of waterways to deliver new ideas and luxuries has inspired artists across time, place and materials. The late Gerard Santoni drew upon the weaving techniques of his Baule ancestors to create lustrous tapestries that depict the beauty and wonder of waterways. For the South African artist, William Kentridge, water can take on a very differing meanings. Throughout his acclaimed drawings for projection, “Johannesburg – 2nd Greatest City after Paris,” “Sobriety, Obesity and Growing Old,” and “Felix in Exile,” water symbolizes both sexual desire and anxiety.
Water continues to inspire artists across the vast African continent, and we encourage you to learn more about them. South African photographers Andrew Tshabangu and Jodi Bieber have independently of one another captured extraordinary images of South Africans at leisure. In a country with a visual history inextricably framed by the injustices of and protests against the Apartheid government, a nation much like the United States in its ongoing efforts to overcome racial inequality, images of Africans enjoying themselves on the beach or at a pool are both poignant and all too rare. Nigeria’s Modupeola Fadube’s also explores the imagery of swimming pools. As a young girl, afraid of the water and the possibility of having her hair style ruined, swimming pools represented fear and an opportunity for other people, not herself. Now, she portrays young Nigerian girls learning synchronized swimming to encourage other young women to overcome their fears, and as a metaphor for the artworld itself—a world to often associated with luxury rather than accessibility for all. In his exploration of the destructive powers of water, Gideon Mendel’s photographs and videos of floods and water damaged family photographs also reveal the resilience of the human spirit and our entangled history with the environment that surrounds us.
Let us know of other artists you like whose work recognizes the power of water! And, Happy Earth Day!
Come and see our exhibition Currents: Water in African Art on view at the museum.
Milbourne has been a curator at the National Museum of African Art since May 2008. Since joining the museum, she has curated the exhibitions “Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa,” “Artists in Dialogue: António Ole and Aimé Mpane” (2009), and “Artists in Dialogue 2: Sandile Zulu and Henrique Oliveira” (2011). She also served as coordinating curator for the exhibitions “Yinka Shonibare MBE” (2010), “Central Nigeria Unmasked” (2011) and “The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists” (2015). In 2016, Karen opened two exhibitions, both “Senses of Time: Video and Film-Based Works of Africa” and “Emeka Ogboh’s Market Symphony.” In 2017, she co-curated the museum’s permanent collection exhibition Visionary: Viewpoints on Africa’s Arts.