Wednesday, March 14, 2012


African-born, Tokyo-based, the beautiful mind behind these lovely kimonos is Serge Mouangue.  Blessed to have his designs showcased in Senegal and in Japan, his work has created quite an exciting buzz in the fashion community.  Serge says that as an artist, he explores and observes the complexities hidden within cultures, and then seeks to weave the disparate threads to create new art.  Here is a link to his website,, where you may enjoy more of his work and see two videos of his shows in Dakar and Tokyo.  Pay close attention to the final dress featured in the Dakar show.  Anyone who can sew a whole gorgeous gown/kimono out of weave and hair extensions is a baaaaaaaaaaaaad sewing mamajama!


Event Tokyo


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Friday, May 27, 2011

Journey Well, Gil Scott Heron

Gil Scott-Heron 
(April 1, 1949 – May 27, 2011)

Mo' WisCon 35 - Opening Ceremonies, Mermaids, and Such

Fine beautiful people, it is nonstop here at WisCon, nonstop, so I'm taking a few minutes of solitary time before heading to the *rest* of the evening's scheduled programming!

This includes bustin' a move or two at the Carl Brandon Society's party, crashing the Consuite since I haven't managed to *get there* since we arrived (good grief, and how is this possible?), and heading to Pan Morigan's voice workshop, before hiding in a corner so I can write. Whew!

Here are some highlights from the day, totally random, as the day's early festivities are fading fast and folks get ready (aka - massive partymakin') for the real throw down -- the actual programming -- begins bright and early tomorrow morning.

Random Things from WisCon 35:

GoH Nisi Shawl is a mermaid from a Mid-Western town...
GoH Nisi's sister looks fabulous in Michael Jackson's glittery glove!

There are at least *55* self-identified people of color at this year's con (not counting the children and teens) - Wow!

The POC Dinner is a wonderful tradition, thank you!

THE SALT ROADS by Nalo Hopkinson was inspired in part by African fractals (thanks, Ian!)

Orange Mike brings joy to the world...

WisCon planners (and attendees) think of damn near everything!  ("Show Your Lips" signs and swirly, ringing talking sticks)

Victor Raymond is now forever known as "He Who Gets Things Done!"

Margaritas and The Angry Black Woman are an AWESOME mix!

Mary Anne Mohanraj is incredibly humble--this woman can build an institution in her sleep and still not miss a beat

Remember the hip "Librarian" doll?  Well, two fab folks have inspired me to add "Bookseller" and "Woman Scientist" to the collection... 

Michaelangelo's has decent keylime pie, but there is a Cold Stone on State Street...there is a Cold Stone on State Street...

My daughter rocks.  'Nuff said.

WisCon 35 - Celebrating Guest of Honor Nisi Shawl

We're in beautiful Madison, Wisconsin now for the 35th annual WisCon - The world's leading feminist science fiction convention!  This year's GoH is writer Nisi Shawl (FILTER HOUSE).  I first met Nisi in 1999 when I was a writer in the six-week Clarion West workshop in Seattle.  Our instructors for the workshop were Nancy Kress, Greg Bear, Octavia Butler, Howard Waldrop, editor Gordon Van Gelder, and Gwyneth Jones.  Talk about awesome--the experience was life-changing in a number of ways.  It was at Clarion West where I met what would become my main writing group, the Beyon'Dusa Women Artist's Group, and it is at Clarion where I finished editing the first volume of Dark Matter (and no, I did not sleep, none of us did!).  I lost ten pounds I needed *to keep* then, ate sushi for the first time (Greg Bear coaxed Trent Walters and I to finally give it a try, yum, thanks!), and I experienced my first real earthquake.  I still can remember the mild panic I felt when I realized that *we* were actually moving, as in, the 8th floor of the college dorm we were in, and in fact, the entire city.  Staring in horror at Mt. Ranier through the window, I knew the summer would be more than memorable and more than a little scary.  It was both, and well worth the coast-to-coast trek from New York.  In fact, fellow writers had traveled from much further--writer Margo Lanagan arrived from Australia and years later I can still remember works from each of the 17 writers gathered there.  With earthquakes, no sleep, cabin fever, and the usual ball of nerves a diverse group of writers can bring together, it was one strange, exhilarating brew.  Nisi and David were there to see it all.

So you can imagine how delighted I am to be able to see and greet some of these folk at WisCon this year, meet new folks and friends, and to help celebrate Nisi's body of work and contributions to the genre.  Today she is dressed in white  and wearing a fabulous glittering tiara.  She's all star-dusty diva now and I'm loving the joy coming off her. She will read and discuss her work throughout the weekend, and do all the good stuff GoH's do with grace and a good sense of humor.

I'll post pictures once I get all the hell yeahs and approvals, in the meanwhile visit the WisCon 35 website for more info:

WisCon 35: May 26-30, 2011

The Concourse Hotel in Madison, Wisconsin

I'll be moderating and participating in a few panels this weekend.  Here are a few of those (only a handful of the zillion available to attendees on at least three different programming tracks-- 1) writing, readers, publishing  2) academics and scholarly research/discussions 3) all things fandom -- and explorations of how race, class, sex, and identity impact the genre are interwoven throughout

Yearning from the Threshold: Magic Realism & Diaspora Literature

TRACK: Reading, Viewing, and Critiquing Science Fiction (Power, Privilege, and Oppression)
Description Those who write about diaspora create from the threshold, from the border. Magical realism—with its crossing of many borders, including the border between magic and reality—allows the writer to celebrate the myths and folklore of home, even as the story echoes the experience of being ex-centric, out of the mainstream, and on the threshold. Join us for a conversation about the ways that the displaced writer (whether immigrant, ex-pat, diaspora, or refugee) uses magical realist fiction to explore the idea of marginality.
Location Senate B
Schedule Sat, 10:00–11:15 am
Panelists M: Mary Anne Mohanraj. Hiromi Goto, Nisi Shawl, Sheree Renée Thomas, Ibi Aanu Zoboi  

Why We Do What We Do: WisCon's Statement of Principles
Track(s) Fandom as a Way of Life (Power, Privilege, and Oppression)
Description WisCon's planning committee (concom) recently created a Statement of Principles to guide our work:  In the statement, we make a commitment to a broad definition of feminism. What does it mean to be a feminist science fiction and fantasy convention? Come add your voice to the conversation. We want your feedback and suggestions.
Location Conference 4
Schedule Sat, 4:00–5:15 pm 

Panelists M: Sheree Renée Thomas. Jeanne Gomoll, Cat Hanna, Debbie Notkin, Victor Raymond                      

FRAGMENTS: Poets and Artists of the South and Southwest

Fragments: Poets and Artists of the South and Southwest

What exactly is ekphrasis?

Defined as “the response of one art form to another”, ekphrasis often involves poetry responding to a medium of art.

On Friday, October 7, 2011, David Hinske, longtime Memphis resident who currently lives and paints in Taos, New Mexico, and Andrea L. Watson, award-winning poet and performance artist, bring an ekphrasis event to Harrington Brown Art Gallery, 5179 Wheelis Drive, in east Memphis, at 7:00 p.m.

Harrington Brown, a contemporary art gallery, is perfect for this type of event in that it describes itself as “committed to educating the community to the value and truth of creativity.”

A year in the making, Fragments: Poets and Artists of the South and Southwest features 24 artists and poets who were challenged to respond to only a fragment of art or writing, without having the entire work in context.

The twists in this show are twofold—six of the twelve poets offer fragments of their poetry to the artists with whom they are paired while the other poets receive fragments of artwork. Not only that: Poets and artists of the South are paired with kindred spirits of the Southwest. This provides the added dynamic of all participants working outside their usual comfort zones.

During the evening, poets will perform their work and artists will discuss the process of creating for the new show. Audience members are encouraged to pose questions at the end of the evening.

Fragments is the 13th show to come out of Taos centering around the communication between art and poetry. The inaugural show, Braided Lives: A Collaboration Between Artists and Poets, sponsored by Taos Institute of Arts, traveled to Denver, Berkeley, and San Francisco.

Other ekphrasis events include Interwoven Illuminations,conceived of by artist Hinske, which was based on the telephone tag game: The concept was to alternate a work of art with a poem so that each poet or artist viewed and responded to only a preceding work. In 2009, the unique show, Threaded Lives, challenged poets to interpret fiber art in the forms of weaving, Shibori, knitting, beading, or quilting. The S.R.O. show, Frida. Fractured, sponsored by J Fine Art Gallery in Taos in 2010, centered on the life, art, and suffering of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo as interpreted by artists and writers from across the United States.  

Curator Andrea Watson explained that these “happenings” are more than merely one-evening events: “For me, the beauty of such ekphrasis experiences is in the extraordinary communication between the genres of the Humanities. Artists and poets, who initially do not know one another and often work hundreds of miles apart, collaborate to produce works that are extraordinary because of the coming together of two lives. This braiding of lives reminds us that friendships are born from people celebrating the best in themselves and others, communicating about the nature of the world through their art and writing.”

Curators: David Hinske and Andrea L. Watson

Southern artists: Roy Tamboli, Elizabeth Alley, Lurlynn Franklin, Lisa Tribo,  Mary Long-Postal, and Thomasin Durgin

Southwest artists: David Hinske, Barbara Zaring, Chuck Zimmer, Abby Salsbury, Dean Pulver, and Carolyn Hinske

Southern poets: Bill Brown, Blas Falconer, Scott Wiggerman, Richard Jackson, Sheree Renée Thomas, and David Meischen

Southwest poets: Andrea L. Watson, Dora McQuaid, Veronica Golos, Leslie Ullman, Madelyn Garner, and Karen Cordova

Thursday, May 05, 2011

"You Can Kill A Man, But You Can't Kill An Idea": I Support Medgar Evers College

This quote was made by Civil Rights activist, Medgar Wiley Evers, the field secretary of the NAACP and a major figure in our nation's Civil Rights history. Evers' commitment to the cause of civil rights ultimately led to his murder in Mississippi on June 12, 1963.   Seven years later, Medgar Evers College was founded in central Brooklyn in 1970 through the collaborative efforts of the community and elected officials.  MEC is one of eleven senior colleges in the City University of New York.  Today, MEC needs our help.

April Silver of Akila Worksongs has sent the clarion call throughout the community, and I just want to let you know that I support Medgar Evers College.

First, a little on why.

As an emerging writer and professional in my field, the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College has been invaluable to my career.  I began first as one of the numerous passionate readers, writers, educators, publishers, artists, and scholars who would travel from around the world and gather each year at the college's annual National Black Writers Conference.  Inspired by the late John Oliver Killens, the NBWC represented all genres of literature. I could hear Elizabeth Nunez speak eloquently about her work and the legacy of Caribbean writers, while also hearing L.A. Banks, Arthur Flowers, Terry McMillan, Tony Medina, Toni Morrison, Jewel Parker Rhodes, or Kalamu ya Salaam.  There, I had the opportunity to hear and participate in some of the most informative and diverse discussions about black literature.  The annual conference served not only as a lightning rod for discussion but as a space that grew and evolved over the years through the dedication of MEC's dedicated staff and faculty, many of whom were respected poets and novelists as well as educators.  No one can say it is easy creating a  literary program anywhere, and doing so at publicly funded institution presents its own set of unique challenges.  Despite the inevitable obstacles and philosophical disagreements on the direction and pace of its growth, the community at MEC remained steadfast and persevered, eventually breaking ground on new, beautiful facilities dedicated to the literary arts.  Together they had made visible what anyone who has taught or studied there knows is in the faculty and staff's hearts. Later, I had the opportunity to work directly with Dr. Brenda Greene in the extraordinary Literature to Life program, where she paired writers with actors to help "at-risk" high school students read, discuss, adapt, and perform black iconic texts for the stage. As any artist-in-residence knows, it was a challenging and spiritually rewarding experience.  As a panelist, I also had the opportunity to discuss my work with writers I have long admired.  The 2006 black speculative fiction panel featuring Samuel R. DelanyTananarive Due, andWalter Mosley remains a highlight for me, and this discussion was later edited by Dr. Greene and Fred Beauford in the book, MEDITATIONS AND ASCENSIONS: Black Writers on Writing, published by historic Third World Press.  These are some of my experiences with MEC, and I am certain that others may share their own stories of how this institution has impacted and inspired them.  MEC has served many, many people over the years.  It deserves our support and respect now.
If you would like more information on what is happening at MEC now and how you may help, please scroll down to read April Silver's detailed report.

Thank you and All Best,

Sheree Renée Thomas

DARK MATTER black speculative fiction series

The Medgar Evers College Coalition for Academic Excellence and Mission Integrity (aka "MEC Coalition") maintains that the current administration at Medgar Evers College, CUNY - under President Pollard and Provost Johnson - is at odds with the mission of the College. In under two years, this current administration has taken some shocking and demoralizing actions that we believe seek to dishonor the mission of this predominately Black institution of higher learning and that seek to dismantle the colleges community-based centers.

The MEC Coalition, with support from key elected officials in the City of New York, maintain that the current administration must go.

Information about this matter is housed on the official website of the coalition. Please We encourage everyone to visit the site, read the information, follow the links, and see for themselves. We also encourage people to explore this Facebook page. While we have posted some content about what's going on, there is more coming. We understand that this may be a lot of information to digest at one time. We also know that there a lot of lies and rumors circulating about our cause. We choose, however, to focus on the facts.

We are re-posting some information that will guide potential supporters to our cause. We hope this illuminates why "all is not well at Medgar Evers College" and how you can help. 
How to Further Support the Work of the MEC Coalition...
  • Visit our website to learn the facts about the problems at MEC. There are rumors and false statements circulating and we would like people to know the truth. Get the facts  

  • Tell friends about our website (
  • Visit and "Like" our Facebook Fan (FB) page. The address Please "like" the page, share the links, write comments, and tell your FB friends and fans about it.
  • Share your stories or essays about your positive MEC experiences. Send them With your permission, we may use your story publicly in an effort to help spread the word about the positive things that MEC represents for us all.
  • If you have a blog, radio show, newspaper column, or other access to media outlets, then let us know! The MEC Coalition Steering Committee members are available for media interviews and speaking engagements about this topic. Please send details to AKILA WORKSONGS, Inc. from our our public relations sub-committee. Email:
  • Attend hearings, rallies, and Coalition related activities. They will be posted on the website and the FB fan page. They will also be emailed to you more regularly. In the meantime, check our websites regularly for updates.
  •  Allow us to add your name to the list of MEC Coalition Supporters. Please send us your first and last name, your company or organizational affiliation, your email address, and the best telephone number for you. Put "Count Me As A Supporter" in the subject heading of your email so that we can process your name more quickly.

We encourage your feedback and comments. And as we prepare for spring, we will have more updates and developments, so please stay tuned. If you prefer to call us, you can leave a message at 718.710.4528.

The MEC Coalition

Know The Facts. Sign The Petitions. Spread The Word!
Phone: 718.710.4528

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Saturday, February 12, 2011

SHOTGUN LULLABIES: Stories & Poems by Sheree Renée Thomas

My first short story and poetry chapbook, SHOTGUN LULLABIES, is available now from Aqueduct Press (Seattle, WA)!

It is Volume 28 in their award-winning "Conversation Pieces Series."

Here is a link to it on the Aqueduct Press website:
Aqueduct Press is pleased to announce...
And yes, that's a John Biggers painting on the cover! Whoohoo, love his art and his discussion on the symbolism of the "shotgun" house.

All Best,

Check back here for readings and other event updates for Sheree ON THE ROAD!

Read my new essay, "On Black Literature & Battle Flags" in the debut of the literary magazine, *The Cascadian Subduction Zone*

Read my short story in *80! Memories & Reflections on Ursula K. Le Guin* (Aqueduct Press, available now!)

*Dark Matter: Reading the Bones* (volume 2 of the Dark Matter anthologies)
(Warner Aspect Books/now Hachette) Winner of the World Fantasy Award, 2005

*Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora*
(Warner Aspect Books/now Hachette) Winner of the World Fantasy Award, 2001
*New York Times* Notable Book of the Year

Sheree featured in OUR TIMES PRESS (Harlem, NYC) 

Sheree @ FREEDOM TRAIN Productions - Post Apocalyptic: New Freedoms, New Communities (Brooklyn, NYC) 


Sheree @ THE FIRE THIS TIME - performing in Derek Lee McPhatter's CITIZEN JANE (Horse Trade Theater, New York, NYC) 


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SHOTGUN LULLABIES: Stories & Poems by Sheree Renée Thomas (new book)

My first short story and poetry chapbook, SHOTGUN LULLABIES, is available now from Aqueduct Press (Seattle, WA)!

It is Volume 28 in their award-winning "Conversation Pieces Series."

Here is a link to it on the Aqueduct Press website:
Aqueduct Press is pleased to announce...
And yes, that's a John Biggers painting on the cover! Whoohoo, love his art and his discussion on the symbolism of the "shotgun" house.

All Best,

Check back here for readings and other event updates for Sheree ON THE ROAD!

Read my new essay, "On Black Literature & Battle Flags" in the debut of the literary magazine, *The Cascadian Subduction Zone*

Read my short story in *80! Memories & Reflections on Ursula K. Le Guin* (Aqueduct Press, available now!)

*Dark Matter: Reading the Bones* (volume 2 of the Dark Matter anthologies)
(Warner Aspect Books/now Hachette) Winner of the World Fantasy Award, 2005

*Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora*
(Warner Aspect Books/now Hachette) Winner of the World Fantasy Award, 2001
*New York Times* Notable Book of the Year

Sheree featured in OUR TIMES PRESS (Harlem, NYC) 

Sheree @ FREEDOM TRAIN Productions - Post Apocalyptic: New Freedoms, New Communities (Brooklyn, NYC) 


Sheree @ THE FIRE THIS TIME - performing in Derek Lee McPhatter's CITIZEN JANE (Horse Trade Theater, New York, NYC) 


Thursday, February 10, 2011

Excellent Children's Programming this year - yay, Stacey, Angeli, and n'em!


Target Children’s Area (Borough Hall Plaza)
The Target Children’s Area provides day-long readings and literary activities for children 2-9

10:00a.m. Troupe – Performs classic children’s books
10:30a.m. Mo Willems, Elephants Cannot Dance; Watch Me Throw the Ball!
11:00a.m. Alison Josephs/Maureen Sullivan, Custard and Mustard, Carlos in Coney Island
11:30a.m. Tom Tomorrow, The Very Silly Mayor
12:00p.m. Sahar Simmons, Briana’s Neighborhood
12:30p.m. Victoria Kann, Goldilicious
1:00p.m. Nick Bruel, Bad Kitty Takes a Bath, Happy Birthday Bad Kitty
1:30p.m. Judi Barrett, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs; The Marshmallow Incident
2:00p.m. Christopher Myers, Black Cat
2:30p.m. Randall & Peter de Seve, The Dutchess of Whimsy, Toyboat
3:00p.m. Ayun Halliday, Always Lots of Heinies at the Zoo
3:30p.m. Grace Lin, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon
4:00p.m. Paul O. Zelinsky, The Wheels on the Bus
4:30p.m. Troupe – Performs classic children’s books

Youth Stoop (Borough Hall Plaza)
The Youth Stoop provides day-long literary activities for youth ages 10-18

10:00 a.m. Brooklyn Next Lit Match Awards. Come hear some of the most talented students writing in the borough who are the finalists in the “Brooklyn Next” borough-wide writing contest. Hosted by Jamie Hector of The Wire.

11:00 p.m. Fantastical Journeys. Join award-winning middle grade authors and illustrators Kate DiCamillo (The Magician’s Elephant), Christopher Myers (Wings) and Michael Buckley (The Sisters Grimm) and step into a world of whimsical imagination where elephants guide, boys fly and humans and fairy-tale creatures live side by side.

12:00 p.m. Keeping it Honest. Coe Booth (Tyrell), Matt de la Peña (Mexican White Boy) and Paul Griffin (Ten Mile River) write books for teenagers that are smart and honest and never talk down to their audience. Join them as they talk about their work and about how they keep it real.

1:00 p.m. Breaking Through. Critically acclaimed authors Laurie Halse Anderson (Winter Girls), Gayle Forman (If I Stay) and G.Neri (Surf Mules) discuss some of this year’s most talked about novels featuring teens forced to make difficult decisions under extraordinary—and less than favorable—circumstances.

2:00 p.m. Love and Longing. How far will you go for love and how far will love go for you? Ned Vizzini (Be More Chill), Aimee Friedman (Sea Change) and Anna Godbersen (The Luxe) reveal very different approaches to succeeding in love as they read and discuss their books.

3:00 p.m. Love, War and Adventures in Babysitting…Transforming Stories into Comics. How does a comic artist take a favorite story and make it new? Three new stars in the literary comics cosmos shine the light on their process, adapting award-winning fiction, found historical materials and one of the most popular teen series of all time into graphic novels. Raina Telgemeier (The Babysitters Club graphic novel series), Danica Novgorodoff (Refresh, Refresh) and George O’Connor (Journey into Mohawk Country).

4:00 p.m. Adventures in the Past. Critically acclaimed authors M.T. Anderson (The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing), Marilyn Nelson (The Freedom Business) and Margaret Peterson Haddix (Shadow Children and Missing series) take us into a thrilling tour of the past where King Edward V lives, and the eighteenth century comes alive with adventure—giving us a new understanding of race then and now. Moderated by Stacey Barney.

5:00 p.m. High School and the Paranormal. Authors Claudia Gray (Evernight Series) and Carolyn MacCullough (Once a Witch) show us that high schoolers have far more to worry about than acne and who to take to the school dance. Enter an exciting world of witches, vampires and magic. Moderated by Stephanie Anderson.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Africa Book Centre - Disappearing Down a Wonderful Rabbit Hole

A few years back I had the good fortune of being a guest of the incomparable Ms. Kadija George (Kadija Sesay) during a Dark Matter writing workshop and reading at the annual SPIT-LIT Festival.  Of all the places Kadija and the fine poets took me to explore, one of my favorites was the Africa Book Centre.  Established in 1989, they have a world class collection of books about and from Africa.  I think their space is be renovated now, but they have a pretty strong online presence.  Take a look at some of their titles and see if I'm not right.  They are one of the best.  Let me know if you have info on other great indie booksites like Indigo Cafe.

Sacred Waters & Mami Wata

With journals in hand and full of Obama & Earth Day fever, we went to DC last Spring to see the wonderful Mami Wata exhibit   at the National Museum of African Art.  This was my first visit to the museum and was really pleased.  The NMAFA make the most of the unique space it has available--you enter and then descend to see an impressive array of art from across the continent--and the staff is very knowledgeable, including the friendly security guards.  I'm excited to see this recent review of scholar Henry John Drewal's collection (below).  I could not leave the museum without a copy of SACRED WATERS as well as his MAMI WATERS: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas. 

Henry John Drewal, ed. Sacred Waters: Arts for Mami Wata and Other Divinities in Africa and the Diaspora. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008. Illustrations, DVD. xxiii + 681 pp. $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-253-35156-2.
Reviewed by Joyce M. Youmans (independent scholar)
Published on H-AfrArts (February, 2010)

Mami Wata Reconsidered and Redefined
This review was commissioned by Jean Borgatti for H-AfrArt. The review was edited by Brett Shadle, review editor for H-Africa.

Henry John Drewal’s edited collection Sacred Waters addresses its subject in no less than forty-six essays. Scholars, artists, writers, filmmakers, and devotees from Africa, Europe, and the Americas present their perspectives on topics drawn from art history, visual and material culture, anthropology, and history. The wide range of information, writing styles, research methods, and intellectual approaches gives the reader a rich view of Mami Wata and related divinities. The included DVD presents additional materials for most chapters--music, spoken word poetry, performance videos, and still images. This multimedia offering complements the collection’s diverse and hybrid subject.
Sacred Waters’ chapters accumulate to reveal Mami Wata’s myriad histories as well as the complexity and changeability of contemporary beliefs and social practices that Mami Wata encompasses. Even the pidgin vernacular term “Mami Wata” does not have a fixed meaning; it can refer to a pantheon of water deities or a single (female or male) spirit, or even to a person who exemplifies various Mami Wata characteristics. Not surprisingly, then, essay authors repeatedly stress diversity; for example, Charles Gore discusses the variety of Mami Wata beliefs and practices within one urban center (Benin City), and Martha G. Anderson notes that water spirit beliefs differ between individuals within the same Ijo community.

Furthering this complexity, many authors push the boundaries of “Mami Wata.” Brian Siegel discusses the mermaid chitapo of Lake Kashiba, Zambia, who has Mami Wata characteristics but is known by a different name. Jean M. Borgatti explains that the Okpella of Nigeria believe in a mythical water beast (achikobo) that resembles a manatee and, like Mami Wata, bestows riches on anyone fortunate enough to catch it. Unlike Mami Wata, however, the achikobo functions within the bonds of community and kinship to buttress social values including justice and generosity. Adeline Masquelier demonstrates that Mami Wata need not live in water; the divinity migrated from the beaches of Abidjan to the savannah of Niger, where it morphed into the spirit known as Madame Sabot (who is said to have hooves).
Given the pervasiveness of Mami Wata-related beliefs and practices in West and Central Africa and the diaspora, it is not surprising that associated visual imagery is diverse and widespread. Often represented as a female mermaid, Mami Wata appears in paintings, drawings, sculptures, rituals, theatrical performances, films, videos, and manipulated photos in sensationalist publications. She embellishes punch-decorated brass dishes and Haitian Vodou flags, and she also adorns masks that the Ejagham say do not represent Mami Wata at all. Verbal descriptions of her abound in songs, poems, novels, Pentecostal sermons and ephemera, and general lore.

One of Sacred Waters’ ongoing themes is that Mami Wata is a manifestation of centuries old African religious traditions retooled for contemporary times. To this end, Osa D. Egonwa outlines the metamorphosis of the river spirit Onoku into Mami Wata in Nigeria’s Ethiope River Basin. And Dunja Hersak comments: “I came to realize that Mami Wata was not only an appended or perhaps transient concept of modernity, but that it encapsulated essential elements of Vili and Yombe religion of the past and present” (p. 340). About Mami Wata’s ability to move between realms (water and land) and speak in various languages, Misty L. Bastian writes: “Although an argument could be made that this speaks to the transition to postmodernity in Nigeria, a condition of permanent dislocation and hybridity, I would add a cautionary note. Spiritual forces in southeastern Nigeria have long had the ability to transmute” (p. 92).

This embedding of Mami Wata within historical context is particularly noteworthy. Past scholarship often has presented Mami Wata as a new phenomenon, typically as “a foreign (Western) thing” or Other (p. 217). Sacred Waters, then, begins to provide a corrective to this misinterpretation; as Joseph Nevadomsky writes: “The employment of the ‘Other’ is not the way to approach Mammy Wata. This analytical posture minimizes disjuncture, fragmentation and contingency--precisely what agency accomplishes. A limitation of the ‘Other’ silences indigenous voices and homogenizes experiences by producing monologues” (p. 356).

Many of Sacred Waters’ essays reveal Mami Wata beliefs and practices as solutions to various societal stressors. Since the 1990s, for example, they have buttressed Ogoni communities in Nigeria during a time of political, social, and environmental turmoil. While conducting research in 2004, Jill Salmons discovered that approximately five hundred Ogoni belonged to the Ogoni Mammy Wata Association, an organization that distributed membership cards. Members called on one another to combine spiritual powers and also to provide financial help for shrines, which Salmons notes functions as “a type of insurance in times of illness” (p. 427).

Barbara Frank discusses Mami Wata as a response to an issue that capitalism raises for many traditional (i.e., premodern) West African belief systems: the problem of individual success. If individuals make a pact with Mami Wata, they can become successful without being considered immoral. In exchange for their wealth, they must promise to be faithful to the divinity. While this means Mami Wata devotees cannot have children and perpetuate the family line, it protects them from the stigma of the older belief that an individual must sacrifice a human life to a spirit in order to profit personally (rather than communally). Significantly, this means multiple incidents of individual success do not cripple the social fabric; also, older belief systems can coexist with newer ones.
Lest the reader develop the impression that Mami Wata’s myriad guises offer uncontested solutions to various social ills, however, Sacred Waters authors also address dissension. As a counterexample to the Ogoni community’s reliance on Mami Wata during a time of strife, Nnamdi Elleh reports that the collapse of the Nigerian economy in 1983 forced people to turn to Christianity’s promise of redemption from daily suffering; consequently, “the images of Mami Wata were sublimated with Christian ones” (p. 402). Demonstrating diversity within a single community, Salmons notes that not every Ogoni is in favor of Mami Wata; sometimes members of various church denominations even destroy shrines that the Ogoni Mammy Wata Association then works hard to replace. Charles Gore and Birgit Meyer show that Pentecostals in Benin City and Accra typically equate Mami Wata with the seductive perils of the contemporary secular world.

One of Sacred Waters’ major strengths is the self-reflexivity of many of its authors. Materials often are not presented as straightforward truth; rather, authors acknowledge the role of interpretation in research and scholarship. In her essay about Mami Wata Vodun, Sharon Caulder-Hounon, who is both an academic and a practitioner of the Vodun religion, notes that researchers “are usually from the ‘outside.’ ... Even a lengthy immersion in the society under scrutiny cannot overcome these deficits. The observer and the observed do not have the same worldviews” (p. 195). Notably, however, even Caulder-Hounon must rely on a translator during her research and Vodun training in the Republic of Benin. Throughout Sacred Waters, other authors mention the dangers of mistranslation. For example, Osa D. Egonwa postulates that inaccurate translations of foreign literature have contributed to misinformation about Mami Wata.

Regarding the accuracy of informants during field research, Chiji Akoma’s response to Henrietta Cosentino’s essay is particularly insightful. About the nude dead body locals found in a river and told Cosentino was a Mami Wata victim, Akoma comments: “Maybe it’s my cultural studies theory kicking in, but you must admit that your being the lone white woman in that community, young, outgoing, sociable, and quite keyed in with many of the townfolk [sic], doesn’t mean that the locals couldn’t overstate some of the mysterious encounters” (p. 102). Akoma hypothesizes that the body may have been that of a bather who was an inexperienced swimmer.

In her essay that features an interview with Zulu Mami Wata devotee Nokuthula Xaba, K. Limakatso Kendall provides the reader with keen insight. After Xaba states that she was underwater with Mami Wata for three days, Kendall notes: “It is difficult to translate this idea of ‘under water’ for Western readers. Traditional Zulu people do not strike the dichotomy between dream and non-dream, conscious and unconscious, common in the West. It is possible, in southern Africa, to be poisoned by food one eats in a dream and to experience physical symptoms of that poisoning; it is possible to descend ‘under water’ while unconscious--and the physical body of the unconscious person remains visible above water to observers” (p. 317).

Insights such as this are necessary to cultivate true cross-cultural understanding. To this end, the final essay in Sacred Waters is particularly successful: Vivian Hunter-Hindrew (Mama Zogbé) presents a harrowing account of her struggle as an African American forced to come to terms with an innate (and initially uninvited) African spirituality. Hunter-Hindrew describes how Mami Wata pressured her into becoming a devotee. Since her firsthand account clearly illustrates Mami Wata’s power, and in such a personal way, it is an excellent choice for the final essay.

Given the diversity of the essays in Sacred Waters, the collection would easily fall apart were it not carefully organized, first by theme and then by place and time. Moreover, this structure allows--even invites--the reader to compare and contrast Mami Wata-related art, practices, and beliefs. It also reveals the unbridled scope of the term “Mami Wata.” The combination of academic and creative writing, photo essay, and interview fosters the reader’s comprehension of a complex subject, and like the included multimedia DVD offerings, complements Sacred Waters’ diverse and hybrid subject.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Xenobia Bailey is Outrageously Creative

The multitalented mother of aesthetic funk, artist Xenobia Bailey, has a cool workshop tomorrow at the Arts Horizon LeRoy Neiman * Center. Check it out before your Valentine festivities begin!


I hope you can make it! If you have any questions you can send me an email;

  • Sunday: February 14th 2:00pm - 5:00pm