Ancestor Shrines

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

Benin, Fon peoples. Mamy Wata figure. Photo by Dana Rush.

The image of Mami Wata was first introduced to Africa in a chromolithograph of a Samoan snake charmer in a German circus. Her adepts often resist her call for as long as possible, as her demands are extraordinary, and her path is an expensive one. Only after experiencing great misfortune or illness will her followers respond to her call. Images of her usually incorporate snakes and fish motifs, and several manifestations may exist in the same region. In central Africa, she is linked with river spirits and often represents the corruption that accompanies modernization. Congolese popular artist Cheri Samba paints Mami Wata in many forms and uses her to symbolize what he recognizes as the social, political, and economic ills of modern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Samba's portrayal is intentionally ironic, for he recognizes that as a painter selling his artwork at exorbitant fees on the world market, he is an active participant in the process of modernity that he is challenging (Jewsiewicki).