Channelling Mami Wata
Judith Aidoo-Saltus’s photograph in the 2022 Bermuda Biennial is a talking point for anyone interested in the African diaspora.
It is also part of the love story she shares with her wife, Julia Aidoo-Saltus, who is pictured in Vocable #2: The Veneration of Mami Wata.
The photograph was taken shortly after one of the lockdowns caused by the pandemic in 2020.
Julia lay on her back in the waters off Whale Bay, kicking to stay afloat, while Judith urged her to “be still” so she could capture the perfect image with her iPhone.
Hundreds of photos were taken. Julia suggested she enter one into the Bermuda National Gallery’s 2022 Bermuda Biennial, A New Vocabulary: Past. Present. Future.
“We take photographs every day, just about, and so I thought I would submit something. I also loved the theme – A New Vocabulary: Past. Present. Future.
“Those are themes that I've been thinking a lot about,” said Judith, who was born in America, but moved to Ghana with her parents at the age of 12.
“We have a concept in Ghana, sankofa, that principle of going back to the past to fetch what is good in order to go forward. And so that notion, of past, present, future, resonated with me because of that principle.”
The Harvard-educated lawyer and investment banker has “always loved the arts and culture”.
At Rutgers University, where she studied business and French, she took the first of many photography classes.
She then branched out into filmmaking before joining the production team of Bridge and Tunnel, a Tony Award-winning play.
“I [also] own some radio stations so this issue of using media and art to uplift people is something that's very near and dear to my heart,” she said.
Eventually she decided to take a break from film and play production and focus on photography, “my first love, which is just walking and wandering and looking and seeing; training the eye to see even as a meditation”.
The Veneration of Mami Wata pays homage to a respected water spirit in the African diaspora.
“[She is a] mermaid-like spirit, this siren who lures people with her beauty and her wisdom,” Judith said. “And so when I saw that image, that's the first thing I thought – this is Mami Wata come to life.”
She’s grateful for the advice from Peter Lapsley, the executive director of the Bermuda National Gallery, that she blow the photograph up; Loris Topan of ColourLab Bermuda Ltd did “just a brilliant job” after attempts overseas degraded the colour of the ocean.
Her wife was just as pleased as she was with the result, Judith said.
“We see it as a joint project. I took the photograph but she was absolutely with me in creating that moment … that look on her face, there’s a light hitting her face a certain way, it's almost angelic.
“There's a look in her eye that's very specific. I’ve taken thousands of pictures of her and none of them have come up quite like that. Sometimes you get lucky.”
Judith’s late Ghanaian father was studying classical music at Oberlin College and Conservatory when he met her mother, a student at Howard University. Her father then moved to Howard where he trained as a surgeon in the late 1950s.
“My mother is from Charleston, South Carolina. In Charleston, there's a place called Charles Towne Landing.
“There's a story about how some enslaved persons walked back into the water rather than be enslaved and this notion that they flew away as birds.
“It's one of those stories, those myths that live. They still talk about it, how water has spirit and if you go into certain bodies of water you'll feel the energy of that water.
“Sometimes it feels peaceful, sometimes it feels troubled, but you'll feel the spirit in water. It keeps coming up.”
Like her parents' water spirit connection, she’s benefited from many “serendipitous events”, she added.
At Harvard Law School, a friend who was completing his JD-MBA, asked her to take his resume to representatives from Goldman Sachs who were there conducting interviews.
“It was before e-mail and all that and I said, ‘sure’ – I didn't even know what an investment bank was. But in handing the resume over, I started talking to the recruiter and we kind of fell into this wonderful conversation.”
Before she knew it, she had agreed to apply for a job herself.
“One thing led to another; it wasn't in any way planned. It was very much happenstance, just helping a friend out, and I happened to have this conversation which then changed the course of my life.”
While looking for a love connection online, she spotted a person with the handle “Juju”.
“Good juju … is the West African phrase we use to indicate ‘magic’ or, more accurately, the presence of ancestral spirits to guide us.
“But for Julia’s use of the word Juju – a nickname from her university days in England surrounded by so many West Africans – I would not have noticed her profile at all.
“She had but a single photo, and roughly five to seven lines of prose. By contrast, of course, I maxed out on pics and the essay section.”
The pair “started an old-fashioned correspondence”, getting to know each other only through e-mails for 30 days.
Judith, who was then living in New York, proposed lunch in Bermuda; Julia insisted she come for a couple of days so she could show her the island.
“Because I love art, I asked her to show me some of the artists around the island and the last artist we went to visit was Sharon Wilson.
“The last painting in the last room that I saw in her gallery was the original of a card somebody had given me 30 years earlier,” she said. “I believe in serendipity. I had to have this painting. I wouldn’t even negotiate the price, because to me it was just so crazy – a random visit in Bermuda of all places.”
She left with the piece promising to wire the funds.
Back in New York, as she prepared to pay, she discovered that Julia had bought it for her.
“She said, ‘I saw the look on your face, and I wanted to be the one to give it to you’. Just the fact that she thought to do it was very powerful to me. What a wonderful, generous thing.”
Despite that, there was much discussion before she “begrudgingly” accepted the present.
“I don't take expensive gifts from people because I find that sometimes it makes my life a little bit more complicated,” Judith said.
“But she said, ‘Can you imagine a scenario in which my giving you this painting would be OK?’ And since I think of myself as a creative, this was the full-circle moment. She got me. It was like, checkmate.
“So literally I arrived on a Monday, I left on a Wednesday and was back on a Saturday, three days later, and I've never left, basically. We’ve been together ever since.”
The pair’s wedding in 2017 was the first same-sex marriage on the island.
“What I love about Bermuda is, it's beautiful, it's clean, the people are nice, at least half the population looks like me. And so for me, it is in some ways a perfect place,” Judith said.
“I can run around the world and come home to Bermuda because it feels safe and calm and beautiful. It's a wonderful place to be restored, that's what it feels like for me.”
The response she’s had from Vocable #2: The Veneration of Mami Wata has been fantastic. Her hope is that it gives other artists confidence to submit their work.
“Many of us take photographs or do art or write poems and we just never submit. I want to encourage anybody who reads this article, anybody who's ever done anything even remotely artistic, to submit it.
“Just put it out there. I think there's power in releasing it and sharing it with the world.”
The 2022 Bermuda Biennial is on at the Bermuda National Gallery until December 30. For more information: www.bng.bm