Mami Wata Figure



Mami Wata Figure


Carving, effigy, sculpture


early-mid 20th Century


West Africa, Nigeria
Ibibio, Annang


Wood, kaolin, pigment, paint
34 1/4 x 24 x 9 13/16 in. (87 x 61 x 25 cm)

Object Number



This figure represents "Mami Wata," the pidgin English term for "Mother of Water," a water spirit who has enjoyed a wide following in Central Africa, West Africa, and regions of the African Diaspora. It was carved by an Ibibio artist living in Nigeria. In Ibibio thought, the otherworld exists in contrast to the world of physical reality. It is a world of the dead as well as of malevolent and benevolent spirits, including Mami Wata, whose particular domain is the watery otherworld beneath rivers and creeks. She is a charismatic spirit, a seductive temptress who bestows good fortune and material wealth on followers as long as they do not break their "contract" with her, in which case she may inflict laziness, madness, infertility, sickness, and other maladies.

Representations of Mami Wata generally depict her as a woman with light skin and long dark hair, wreathed in snakes. Her luxuriant long hair refers to the dada locks worn by spiritually marked individuals, and the snakes are pythons sacred in West African belief. Mami Wata reveals herself to future devotees through recurring dreams, physical maladies, or unusual behavior. In consultation with a diviner a person many discover they are a chosen one of Mami Wata. Establishing a shrine to Mami Wata will please and honor her, thereby bringing to an end any maladies and problems previously experienced. The physical form that sculptures like this one take is derived from knowledge of her gained by both the client and the artist through their dreams of her.

The altar on which this shrine figure once stood would have been densely packed with offerings like alcohol, perfume, talcum powder, plastic jewelry, and other imported luxury goods, all spiritual magnets to attract Mami Wata so that her presence and support are assured. The shrines of Mami Wata devotees reflect their very personal relationships with the spirit. Through dreams and visions, devotees journey to Mami Wata's fabulous underwater realm. These aquatic excursions are evoked in the shrine through the use of white, blue and green colors and the inclusion of boats, canoes, fish, wavy lines, and aquatic plants. It is this inward, lived experience of the dream world where devotee and deity meet that is externalized and reified in the carved art work and shrine environment.

Credit Line

Gift of William S. Arnett


Art of Nigeria from the William S. Arnett Collection, Michael C. Carlos Museum, October 15, 1994 - January 2, 1995|
Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and the African Atlantic World (travelling show), Fowler Museum at UCLA, March 1 - July 2008; Chazen Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin, October 18, 2008 - January 11, 2009; National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, April - July 2009|
Divine Intervention: African Art and Religion, Michael C. Carlos Museum, February 5 - December 4, 2011|
MCCM Permanent Collection Gallery, March 29, 2013 - December 1, 2014
MCCM Permanent Collection Gallery, August 6, 2016 - Present
Marcilene K. Wittmer and William Arnett, Three Rivers of Nigeria: Art of the Lower Niger, Cross, and Benue from the Collection of William and Robert Arnett (Atlanta: High Museum of Art, 1978), front cover, 62-63, number 144.|
Michael C. Carlos Museum Handbook (Atlanta: Michael C. Carlos Museum, 1996), 100.
Henry John Drewal, "Introduction: Sources and Currents," Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas, ed. Henry John Drewal (Los Angeles: Fowler Museum at UCLA, 2008).|
MCCM Newsletter, September - November 2009.|
Jessica Stephenson, "African Art: At the Intersection of Religion, Psychology, and Medicine," Emory in the World (Spring 2011): 39-41.|
MCCM Newsletter, Spring/Summer 2011.|
Michael C. Carlos Museum: Highlights of the Collections (Atlanta: Michael C. Carlos Museum, 2011), 102.|
Henry J. Drewal, "Local Transformations, Global Inspirations: The Visual Histories And Cultures Of Mami Wata Arts In Africa," in A Companion to Modern African Art, ed. Gitti Salami et al. (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 2013).


© Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University. Photo by Bruce M. White, 2016.
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“Mami Wata Figure,” Michael C. Carlos Museum Collections Online, accessed June 23, 2024,


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