The legend of Mami Wata hails from West, Central and Southern Africa and has travelled as far as The Caribbean Islands and Brazil with the Black diaspora. She is both feared and respected - a dual natured deity seen as a symbol of abundance and fortune with a destructive promiscuous spirit.
Often attended by many mami and papi watas, she takes the form of a half-woman half-fish, but has the ability to transform into a human woman in order to visit her disciples. She is associated with giant snakes, for example the anaconda - a species known to love water. Mami Wata’s power lies in her ability to beguile her subjects and grant them riches, but also curse them for eternity.
The polarity of the imagery depicting Mami Wata is not uncommon for Black women who are considered to be hypersexual on the one hand but are often invisible to much of society on the other, as if it is possible to be both at once.
Black women are placed in the role of a-sexual care-giver, expected to care for all around them without needing time to refill their own cups. Black women are asked to carry and save the world without reward or recognition.
Mami Wata is a protector of Black women, she knows our pain, and our fire. She has been forgotten many times, vilified and made into the villain of many tales, but still she prevails. It feels important for us at Black Discourse to introduce her to our readers in all of her glory.
Here is my guide to Mami Wata through five iconic artworks:
Duality: Bringer of fortune and disaster, thought to bless female worshippers with fertility but also to seduce married men away from their wives and families.
Water: Mami Wata is a water spirit who embodies the sacrosanct nature of water, she is also thought to help connect enslaved Africans to the sacred bodies of water which they were seperated from.
Protection: Mami Wata protected her people by setting fire to, and capsizing, slave ships.
Hedonist: Mami Wata covets offerings such as exquisite jewelry, mirrors and combs, succulent food and lucious drinks.
Wata, Ronan McKenzie & Joy Yamusangie, 2020
Ever Changing: Mami Wata is ever-changing, from half-fish half-woman and half-snake, to her appearance in human form to her followers.
Mami Wata continues to inspire artwork, fashion and music. She is dear to the hearts of the Black Atlantic in all of her forms.