Exchange

By Mary Nooter Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles

Fon peoples, Benin, chromolithograph. Photo by Dana Rush.

Sometimes foreign iconographies are incorporated into a culture' s artistic repertoire and given new meanings far removed from their original referents. Along the western African coast, the “syncretic sensibilities” of artists and religious practitioners are especially evident in the way that Hindu gods have been appropriated and recycled in form and meaning. In the Republic of Benin, for example, Hindu lithographs have been brought in by Indian merchants for their own purposes but subsequently marketed to, as well as adapted and adopted by, local peoples. In particular, images of a three-headed Indian god have been reinterpreted as Densu, husband of Mami Wata, the water spirit associated with wealth and beauty, who is herself modeled after an imported chromolithograph of a Samoan snake charmer in a German circus in the late nineteenth century. Painted wall murals, sculptures, and altars dedicated to Mami Wata and other gods are often collages of intercultural meaning and the invention of meaning.