Nature, Spirits and Arts in Burkina Faso

by Christopher D. Roy
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 image of Mamy Wata in the Stanley Collection at the University of Iowa was carved in 1972 by the Anang artist Thomas Chukwu. It was collected by the scholar Jill Salmons, who sold it to a faculty member at Iowa, who in turn gave it to the art museum in 1991. The image was “invented” based on a photograph of a female snake charmer from Samoa who worked in a German circus early in this century. The photograph made its way to Africa, whence it was sent to India to be reproduced in great numbers, which were shipped back to Africa to serve as images of the spirit. Mamy Wata is conceived of as a white woman, with long straight hair, often with snakes, which are symbols of fertility, and often with a fish’s tail, perhaps in reference to mermaids as the figureheads of 19th century European sailing ships. She is the embodiment of wealth and well-being.