Exhibition reveals passion for African arts

Oct. 14, 2008

by Gwen Evans

Photo of Henry Drewal

Henry Drewal, Evjue-Bascom Professor of Art History and Afro-American Studies, organized the exhibition “Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas” at the Chazen Museum of Art from Oct. 18-Jan. 11.

Photo: Bryce Richter

Schedule of events related to Drewal’s current exhibition “Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas”

For those who believe a tidy, antiseptic workplace free of distractions improves productivity, a visit to Henry Drewal’s office in the Elvehjem Building will challenge that notion.

It is cluttered with the treasures of a lifetime passion for African art, teaching and research. There’s barely room for a cup of coffee among all the books on his desk. The bookcases groan with volumes. Fabrics and carvings provide splashes of color and texture. Photos of friends and students collected over the years are taped haphazardly to the wall behind his desk, some edges curled with age.

The cheerful muddle is a fitting environment for Drewal, Evjue-Bascom Professor of Art History and Afro-American Studies. He is a leading scholar in African and African Diaspora art, is a prolific author and editor, and has curated many major exhibitions. He has nurtured countless students since joining the UW–Madison faculty in 1990 and some 17 years at Cleveland State University before arriving here.

While posted in Nigeria with the Peace Corps, Drewal met a Yoruba sculptor, was smitten with his work, and talked his way into an eight-month apprenticeship, which gave him entry into the life, language, art and culture of the Yoruba.

His focus has always been on showing how and why art is important in the lives of people, communities and countries; he bristles at the notion of art for art’s sake. “Art doesn’t exist for itself. Art can’t make art. Art is made for people’s sake, for society and humanity. I am interested in how art effects people’s lives. We’re always creating and interpreting our world through art,” says Drewal.

Drewal has always been interested in other cultures and languages. While in high school, his family hosted an international student from Berlin. Drewal went on his own world-learning experience and lived with a family in France. With an undergraduate degree in French and fine arts, he signed up for the Peace Corps, not knowing where he’d be posted. He packed his bags for Nigeria to teach English and French, unaware he was beginning a life-transforming journey.

In addition to teaching languages in Nigeria, he kept up his personal artwork and organized vacation art camps for his students. He met a Yoruba sculptor, was smitten with his work, and talked his way into an eight-month apprenticeship, which gave him entry into the life, language, art and culture of the Yoruba — an uncommon opportunity. For Drewal, there was now no turning back from his life’s path of studying and championing African arts.

“We think art appreciation and art making is somehow separate from society. In an African context, the arts occur as part of life and you have to understand the society and history.”

Henry Drewal

“I feel really privileged to have had so many multicultural experiences in my formative years. I got to see a whole other cultural world and to evaluate my own culture. This was crucial to my formation,” says Drewal.

In the 1960s, though, African studies was a new field. His graduate work at Columbia University was interdisciplinary and included history, anthropology and art history. This approach demanded about three times the amount of coursework of his colleagues because he was studying three different areas.

This integrated approach meshed well with studying African art, which is so integrated with society and culture. “We think art appreciation and art making is somehow separate from society. In an African context, the arts occur as part of life and you have to understand the society and history,” says Drewal. “It was my apprenticeship that made me understand what the arts are really all about, that the arts are multisensorial.”

Drewal’s latest project is a perfect example of African art’s integration into the fabric of life. His exhibition “Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas” brings together some 120 works of art that portray the water deity “Mami Wata,” or Mother Water.

Mami Wata

Mami Wata, by Abdal 22, will be included in “Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas.”

Mami Wata is often portrayed as a mermaid, snake charmer or a combination of both. That mermaid image was brought to Africa by the first Portuguese visitors in the 15th century but was immediately Africanized because she resonated with ancient, indigenous African ideas of water divinities. Once confined to Western Africa, her image can now be found throughout the continent and beyond, but sometimes called different names, according to Drewal. She can be protective, gentle, healing or dangerous, but is always beautiful and powerful.

The exhibition includes sculptures, headdresses, masks, paintings, textiles and photographs that explore the different regional and cultural interpretations of Mami Wata and her presence in sacred and secular aspects of life.

The exhibition will be on display at the Chazen Museum of Art from Oct. 18-Jan. 11. After its stay at the Chazen, the show will travel to Washington, D.C.; New York; Newport News, Va.; and Palo Alto, Calif., in a four-year tour that began earlier this year in Los Angeles. There are many complementary events associated with the show’s Madison run, including a carnival, family day, lectures, film and music.

“Mami Wata has been on my mind a long time. You see images of her everywhere and she has traveled across many cultures. She swam far and wide,” laughs Drewal. “I could have chosen many topics for an exhibition but she has always fascinated me because she connects Africa to the rest of the world visually and culturally.”

Drewal’s current interest is with the Siddis, people of the African Diaspora who have lived in India and Southeast Asia for centuries. While researching there, he noticed the beautiful quilts the Siddi women made from clothing remnants. To give the communities a source of income, the Siddi women, Drewal and colleagues established the Siddi Woman’s Quilting Cooperative. The nearly $25,000 raised so far has purchased school supplies and uniforms, paid for medical care and supported loans. Drewal is arranging an exhibition of the quilts at the Caribbean Cultural Center in New York in March 2009.

“I want to show people the beauty and creativity of African arts being produced today. This [Africa] is a dynamic place that we don’t hear about in the mass media and people are creating art and following their beliefs and expressing their devotion through their arts,” says Drewal. “I love what I do; I don’t consider it work. I am blessed to be able to do what I do, it’s a great honor.”

‘Mami Wata’ Schedule of Events

“Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas” explores 500 years of the visual culture and history of Mami Wata, an African water deity. Unless noted, all events are free and will be held in the Chazen Museum of Art

  • Friday, Oct. 17

    6 p.m. “Mami Wata’s Big Splash!” Lecture by exhibition curator Henry Drewal, professor of art history and Afro-American studies.

    7–9 p.m. “A Carnival of Water Creatures.” Costume reception, music, dance and spoken word performances. Admission: $8 members of the Chazen Museum of Art, $12 nonmembers, $5 UW–Madison students with ID.

  • Saturday, Oct. 18

    Noon-4 p.m. “Celebrate Water Spirits!” A family day of art, music and dance, including a surprise guest from the Henry Vilas Zoo. Children under 12 should be accompanied by an adult.

  • Sunday, Oct. 19

    2:15 p.m. Drewal will give a brief reading and sign exhibition catalogues.

  • Tuesday, Oct. 21

    6 p.m. “The Sacredness of Water.” Patty Loew, UW–Madison, will speak; joined by the MadTown Singers, an American Indian group.

  • Thursday Oct. 23

    6 p.m. “Arts for Water Spirits in Haitian Vodou.” Lecture by Marilyn Houlberg, School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

  • Friday, Oct. 24

    7:30 p.m. Two films on water: “Mammy Water (La Pêche et le culte de la mer),” 1953; and the documentary “Le Niger.” Cinematheque, 4070 Vilas Hall. Doors open at 7 p.m.

  • Saturday, Oct. 25

    7:30 p.m. Film: “Faro, la reine des eaux” (Faro, Goddess of Water), 2007. UW Cinematheque, 4070 Vilas Hall. Doors open at 7 p.m.

  • Tuesday, Oct. 28

    6 p.m. “Conversations on Race, Privilege, and the Environmental Movement.” Talk by Carolyn Finney, University of California at Berkeley, and Kaylynn Sullivan TwoTrees, artist/activist.

  • Thursday, Oct. 30

    6 p.m. “Mermaids and End-Time Jezebels: New Tales from Old Calabar.” Lecture from Rosalind I. J. Hackett, University of Tennessee.

  • Thursday, Nov. 6

    6 p.m. Two talks on water resources: “History of Wild Rice and its Restoration,” Anthony Kern, Northland College; and “The Past, Present and Future of Great Lakes Fisheries,” Jim Kitchell, UW–Madison.

  • Saturday, Nov. 8

    Midnight Film: “Lady in the Water” 2006. Union South, Main Lounge.

  • Monday, Nov. 10, 7:30 p.m.

    Film: “Big Fish” 2003. Memorial Union, Play Circle.

  • Tuesday, Nov. 11

    6 p.m. “Water and the Law: Two Wisconsin Ojibwe Cases.” Discussion with Larry Nesper, UW–Madison.

  • Thursday, Nov. 13

    6 p.m. Artist’s talk: “An/atom/y of a Story.” Obiora Udechukwu, St. Lawrence University. His aquatint “Watermaid I” is in the exhibition.

  • Tuesday, Nov. 18

    6 p.m. Two talks on local waters: “Wisconsin Groundwater Resources,” Anders W. Andren; and “Global Warming and its Implications for Wisconsin/Great Lakes Waters,” John J. Magnuson. Both are from UW–Madison.

  • Thursday, Nov. 20

    6 p.m. Artist’s talk on “Cool Women and Hot Combs.” Sonya Clark, Virginia Commonwealth University. Clark’s “Aqua Allure” is in the exhibition.

    7:30 p.m. Film screening of “Incident at Loch Ness” 2004. Memorial Union, Play Circle.

  • Friday, Nov. 21

    7–9 p.m. “The Onus Trio” offers a jazz program on the theme of sacred water in African/African American musical traditions with a post-performance discussion with the artists.

  • Tuesday, Nov. 25

    6 p.m. “Undercurrents: Secrecy, Initiation, and other Sightings of Mami Wata Below the Radar.” Lecture by Amy L. Powell, UW–Madison.

  • Thursday, Dec. 4

    6 p.m. “Osun and Other Yoruba Water Divinities in the African Diaspora.” Lecture by Bolaji Campbell, Rhode Island School of Design.

  • Tuesdays, Nov. 11-Dec. 16

    4 p.m. Docent-led drop-in tours. Paige Court.