Ancestor Shrines

By Eileen Moyer
University of Amsterdam (formerly University of Iowa)

Joseph Chukwu (ca. 1900-1986, Utu Etim Ekpo, Abak, Akwa Ibom State)
Mami Wata figure, ca. 1975
Wood, fiber, pigment
59.69  x 50.8  x 20.32 cm (23 1/2  x 20  x 8 in)
University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art, Gift of Pamela J. Brink, RN, PhD, 1991.225

The idea of bargaining with a spiritual entity is not uncommon in Africa, where it is very rare for a spirit to be wholly good or evil. In certain circumstances man is able to influence the outcome of his own spiritual fate through gifts and offerings. The idea of performing penitent acts or abstaining from something for religious reasons is common to most religions. Just as Catholics are expected to give up something for Lent, and Moslems may not eat before the sun goes down during Ramadan, practitioners of many African religions may abstain from certain pleasures or foods to appease the appropriate deity. In many parts of West Africa and Democratic Republic of the Congo, images of Mami Wata appear on personal shrines and temple walls. She embodies ideas that are associated with foreign influence and modernity, and she demands extravagant gifts from her followers, who are also often expected to remain celibate. In return she promises great success in the modern and materialistic world (Jewsiewicki).

Mamy Wata in Agwa mbari. Igbo peoples, Nigeria. Photo by Herbert M. Cole.