First published: Winter 2004
In the closing years of the nineteenth century artists in France such as Seurat, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Alphonse Mucha used the circus, cabaret and music hall for their inspiration. They were not alone. At this time an unknown artist in Hamburg, Germany was painting a half-torso picture of a circus snake-charmer. She had long black hair, a fair complexion and a bejewelled bodice. Her arms were upraised, and entwined around her arms was a python. Another python crept upwards from her waist, its head approaching the cleft between her breasts. Little did the artist know that this painting was to become the inspiration for a powerful visual icon now found throughout West Africa and the African diaspora called Mammi Wata, or ‘Mother of the Waters’.
In 1880 the painting was rendered in chromolithographic format by Arnold Schleisinger of Hamburg as Der Schlangenbandiger (The Snake Charmer) depicting the exotic, long-haired, snake charming wife of a Hamburg Zoo keeper. Around this time, many chromolithographs (an early printing process that uses writing or engraving on stone) were disseminated from a press in Cairo. Similarly printers in Bombay, India, also under British colonial rule at that time, began to produce chromolithographic images that influenced later visual depictions of African water spirits, the earliest of which was produced circa 1900. Today, chromolithographic images of Christian and Hindu gods can be found side by side in Mammi Wata shrines and remind us of a long history of cross-cultural borrowing.