2017-permanent??: Currents: Water in African Art. Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Washington DC

Water is in all of us—we need water to exist. Water is a source of food, either directly from fishing and hunting or indirectly from irrigated crops. Its currents flow through myths, metaphors, and rituals. Water’s fluidity means there are as many meanings associated with it as there are forms. Diverse and wide-ranging in material, time period, style, and intended use, the objects in this exhibition span the continent of Africa to explore the importance of water for both practical and artistic purposes.

Oceans separate continents, but their currents also connect them. Waterways deliver new ideas and luxuries. These transportation routes bring both friends and enemies.

Below the surface, water also holds powerful meaning. Water from tears can relate to the profound relationship between a mother and child or connect the spirit world with that of the living. In many parts of Africa, water makes up one part of a philosophical triad along with the sky and the earth, with water the most changeable and most traversable realm. This shifting intersection explains the influence of gods and the ancestors in daily life.

Water features frequently in origin stories. The Dogon of Mali recount tales of aqueous primordial ancestors and of a dog discovering a hidden water source during migration to a new home. The Yoruba along the Oshun River speak of a king’s daughter who was transformed into the river. Other water spirits take form as humans, animals, or a combination of both. These spirits can be protective, yet can also be dangerous if not approached properly.

The iconography of water lends itself to fluid cultural adaptation, like the foreign snake charmer whose likeness was adopted for Mami Wata, the mother of waters. Aquatic creatures worked particularly well as subjects for Akan weights representing subjective proverbs. Water imagery is also tied closely to rulers, such as in the Benin Kingdom, where the use of coral-bead regalia links back to control of oceanic foreign trade.

In their creativity, diversity, and beauty, these artworks from the museum’s permanent collection prove that water is one of most potent forces on earth.

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