Mbari: Art as Process in Igboland

by Herbert M. Cole
Professor Emeritus, University of California, Santa Barbara

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

Central is Mamy Wata, a deity that was created around the turn of the 20th century in southern Nigeria, and whose image is based on a colored lithograph that appears to have been made first in Germany, then imported in great numbers to tropical Africa. The picture is of a foreign woman (light skin, straight hair) who controls snakes (such as the python at the figure's feet and coiled on the wall behind her). The image and deity are syncretic and composite, combining earlier, local messengers of the gods, pythons, with an exotic foreign and charismatic beauty who is known to lure people into compromising situations. Mamy Wata became a widespread religious organization, varied in its many manifestations. Among the Igbo she is known to make people rich or crazy (or both). If she is given lavish gifts of glittering, foreign things she will cure and help the afflicted, and if not, she will sicken or impoverish them. She is known particularly for her ability to help with modern problems, such as getting a better job, or a motorcycle or car.