The Process of Becoming: MAMI at the Knockdown Center
Ali Rosa-Salas and Dyani Douze are curators who embrace contradiction. Apart from the sleek packaging and easily digestible exhibitions that tend to fill the major museums of today, MAMI, their upcoming exhibition at the Knockdown Center, uses the pantheon of water deities, Mami Wata, to emphasize the complexity in the works of woman-identifying (or womxn) artists of African descent. This figure proved both a fruitful and relevant jumping off point for Rosa-Salas and Douze, who see many intersections in the mythology of Mami Wata and the ideas powering the art-making of their early-career, contemporary art community. “We were thinking about our experiences of women of African descent living today and the ways we are navigating many subjectivities,” Rosa-Salas explained in a recent phone interview. “That’s how we began to realize there were a lot of other artists [who] were thinking through similar things.”
If you are unfamiliar with Mami Wata, as I was before writing this article, a quick Google search is telling in terms of their complex resonance. The deities are referenced in many ways — everything from a “sexy mama” to “healer” to “nurturing mother”— and much modern understanding embraces the porous mystery they carry. Regardless, it is Mami Wata as an embodiment of risk, challenge, and aspiration that may best characterize MAMI. The curators have organized events ranging from dance parties to a pop-up shop around the main exhibition, which showcases the work of five artists and one artist collective: Salome Asega, Nona Faustine, Doreen Garner, Aya Rodriguez-Izumi, Rodan Tekle and MALAXA (Tabita Rezaire and Alicia Mersy). These artists work across many media and varied geographical locations, but Rosa-Salas and Douze are quick to emphasize that these differences are an essential tenant of their curatorial thesis. “Mami Wata can be the projection of what they need — full of hybridity and contradiction — and can also offer an archetype for a pluralistic approach,” Rosa-Salas says.
Historically, the main portrayal of the deities has been a mermaid’s head and torso with a fish or serpent as hindquarters. As the curators explain, this characterization was the result of an image of a Samoan snake charmer, used to advertise a touring exposition, that originated in Germany in the 1880s. Eventually, this advertisement made its way to West Africa, and, because of trade routes, circulated to the Americas. Under the colonialist gaze of Western Europeans, this predominant depiction was the epitome of the exoticized other: a curvy woman with brown skin, dark hair, and a snake wrapped around her body.
In the context of MAMI, the varied narratives of Mami Wata are ripe to be debunked by the artists involved. Forward-thinking and bold, these womxn represent a large facet of black and brown artists working today: coming of age in the Obama era, contemporaries of the Black Lives Matter movement, and living in major cities — from Brooklyn to Tel Aviv — where socio-political unrest is not only potent, but extremely accessible thanks to social media and smartphones. “It’s beyond an exhibition, it’s a life practice,” Rosa-Salas states. “It’s beyond curatorial imperative: how do we create loving spaces for people to present the many iterations of who they are?”
Interestingly, the exhibition’s challenges to existing paradigms are two-fold. The curators endeavor to complicate both their proposed content (Mami Wata) and form (the exhibition). Therefore, MAMI is organized as a way to communicate a contemporary understanding of Mami Wata to a new generation of people and also as a means to subvert a history of art exhibitions, long dominated by a colonialist lens and the work of white artists. It is just as much a call for change as it is a space to enact the voices of those long shut out from institutional visibility.
For a clearer view of current art world standards, a small data sample is disconcerting at best. For example, just 2% of MoMA’s permanent collection consists of works by women of color. Additionally, the differences in the valuation of art works are striking. The highest recorded work at auction for a living male artist was Jeff Koons’s Balloon Dog (Orange) which sold for $58.4 million in 2013, whereas the highest recorded living female’s work, Yayoi Kusama’s White Number 28, sold for just $7.1 million in 2014.
These statistics are unfortunate, to say the least, but the curators acknowledge this precedent in order to move forward rather than become embittered by it. “This show is a part of the [arts] landscape: it’s an exhibition,” Rosa-Salas explained. “It’s a part of that [visual art] lineage, but these artists are interested in exposing and uncovering the many complicated ways you relate to those lineages.” Producing art for the exhibition space will not erase these disparities, but it does prove that the willingness to grapple with injustice can meaningfully coexist there.
Though Mami Wata is the looming curatorial influence for the show, each artist has her own personal ties to the figure. Brooklyn-based photographer Nona Faustine, for example, uses herself as a subject to engage in a subversive practice of displaying black female bodies. Many of her works, including those in MAMI, put her own body in sites where the transatlantic slave trade occurred as a way to engage in a kind of ritualistic reconnection. By placing her body in these historic locations, Faustine bravely asserts a dialogue with a generation of her ancestors. As a photographer, she is both capturing an experience while crafting a fiction, ultimately locating strength in the claiming of representational imagery, something Mami Wata was unable to do. That defiant, empowered approach is one that is evident in all of the artists in MAMI. They are “unapologetic about the way they express their multiple identities,” Douze adds. “They are not afraid to speak on it.”
Another artist, Salome Asega, in collaboration with Ayodamola Tanimowo Okunseinde, takes this act of redesigning history one step further to create a museum of the future. For MAMI, she displays a hypothetical body suit that is calibrated to ocean currents meant to calm the wearer if they are in the midst of a traumatic experience. Asega is also the only artist in the exhibition to treat water directly as a subject, serving as testament to Mami Wata while not omitting the fact that water has been a clear source of trauma for those of African descent, namely during the transatlantic slave trade. Drawing a parallel from the faulty circulation of the original snake charmer “image” of Mami Wata — due to the, as Rosa-Salas puts it, “colonial exhibition apparatus”— Asega’s ArtifactID: 012 offers a new vision for what it means to archive meaningful creations within museum walls.
The work of the other womxn range greatly, from a digital crafting of spiritual practice (Malaxa); to post-capitalist explorations (Tekle); to a visceral exploration of gynecology (Garner); to a vulnerable view of social norms and expectations (Rodriguez-Izumi). All of this adds up to an exhibition that feels thoroughly nuanced in its representation of media and ideas but, even more, an utterly essential outlet for both the artists and curators. Douze echoes this, explaining that their approach was modeled more on the tenets of human caregiving rather than a zeal to organize a flashy art show. “To enter a curatorial practice — to care for work and other people — means to have a heightened sense of empathy. It’s important to meet people where they’re at,” she explains.
And, it’s personal. In many ways, Mami Wata encourages the celebration of identity without it feeling taboo, didactic, or mired in the swamps of political correctness. The deities allow the many nuances of being human to be cause for celebration, even when a dominant narrative (Western, white, capitalist culture) strives to flatten this complexity. “I am really interested in breaking a uni-dimensional narrative of what it means to be a female artist of African descent,” Rosa-Salas explains. “I think art plays a critical role either in challenging those narratives or allowing them to continue.”
It is a vision of an art world that does exist, despite thoughts to the contrary, and, through our conversation, it became apparent to me why MAMI is a “life practice” for the curators. The wont of MAMI is to come as you are; come with your confusion, your sadness, your contradiction. Rosa-Salas and Douze do not strive for tidy ways to sum up how identities are shaped or defined in their community of African womxn. “We’ve all been trained how to check the boxes, but that’s not working,” Rosa-Salas states toward the end of our conversation. “That’s not honest. That’s not how I am living my life. That’s not how I am navigating the world every day.”
MAMI opens on August 6 and runs through September 4 at the Knockdown Center in Maspeth, Queens. More information, including a full roster of events, at this link.