Tales of Black mermaids
With the news that Disney was to release a new version of The Little Mermaid with a Black actress in the lead role of Ariel, Cookie Washington decided to stage a show of her own.
Her call for Black mermaids captured the attention of Judith Aidoo-Saltus who had paid tribute to a water spirit revered across the African diaspora with a photograph that appeared in the 2022 Bermuda Biennial.
Two images from her series, Veneration of Mami Wata, will go on exhibit in Charleston, South Carolina tomorrow as part of Ms Washington’s show, Celebrating Black Mermaids: From Africa to America.
The prominent curator and quilter intentionally planned it to coincide with the premiere of the Disney remake.
Each of the 132 mix-media works tells a story of how Black mermaids comforted Africans as they travelled in slave ships having been forcibly removed from their homeland.
Ms Washington’s goal was to counter the message she felt Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures was sending: that being taken care of by a prince was better than ruling a kingdom of your own.
“I wanted to make sure that I could get the show to open the same day as the Disney movie to kind of counterbalance that whole patriarchy,” she said. “You want to lower yourself by getting out of the water and giving up your kingdom to marry a prince? No. I want us to understand our empowerment.”
The hope is that it will become a travelling exhibit and make its way to Bermuda.
“My prayer is to see if we can rent it to Bermuda since my process started, at least in this iteration, in Bermuda,” Ms Aidoo-Saltus said. “My prayer is that we could actually travel with this exhibit to Bermuda, to Ghana and to major cities with large Black populations in America. So we hope this exhibit is just the first. Charleston is just the beginning.
“We are looking for sponsors and people who are interested in the textile arts, which by definition are women's work.”
She caught wind of the exhibit from Arianne King Comer, a friend and noted textile artist, and immediately wanted to be a part.
“This is almost counterprogramming but certainly complementary programming, because some people found it very controversial when Ariel was cast as a Black woman,” Ms Aidoo-Saltus said.
“But this notion of Black mermaids is in our culture; in our stories and our songs and our paintings for literally hundreds of years – all over the Black Atlantic. So when I heard Arienne say last April, ‘I have to jump off our call a little early because [of a meeting with Ms Washington]’, I said, ‘Oh my gosh. Put me in touch with [her]. I would love to submit my Mami Wata photographs.’ And so what we're showing are two that have never been seen before publicly, that are variations of the one that was shown in Bermuda.”
A live Black mermaid, a film festival, a colouring book and other culturally related events will partner the art display at the City Gallery.
“The City Gallery in Charleston is right on the wharf,” Ms Aidoo-Saltus explained. “Eighty per cent of all Black Americans have at least one forebearer that came through the port of Charleston.
“So the fact that we're doing this, celebrating Black mermaids literally just a matter of feet from this port, is really powerful.
“We want children, particularly Black children, to know and our people to know and appreciate our culture despite what other people are doing.
“There is a rich tradition of Black women being personified with the ocean as powerful, as beautiful, as protectors. So it's a source of strength for us.
“[This exhibit] is a modern way of telling; a multimedia way of continuing that tradition of telling those stories so that we are strengthened by these memories.”
For years Ms Washington worked as a nurse, specialising in neonatology and developmentally-delayed children.
When she initially turned her attention from that to quilting she was unsure what direction she should take with the art.
She put her trust in her “higher power” and is convinced that God directed her focus to Black Madonnas.
“Because I'm a Baptist that really did not resonate with me but then as I started researching Black Madonnas deeper and deeper, I found Black mermaids; Stella Maris [the patron saint of the Apostleship of the Sea] is actually a Black mermaid. It just resonated so much with my spirit.”
She held her first mermaid exhibit in 2012. Her goal then and now was to let Black people know “about the importance of Black mermaids and water spirits in our history”.
“Even if we don't venerate them now we need to know that they were venerated and that it's not just a cute, Disney kind of thing,” Ms Washington said.
“I want them to know that we are not rising up from being slaved, we're coming down from being worshipped as goddesses. I think it's important for us as women and Black children to know that rather than to keep telling them the story of the patriarchy and how you have a man. No, that's not a story that I want my granddaughters to know.”
Apart from Ms Aidoo-Saltus, all of the participating artists are based in America. Ms Washington was thrilled to receive her photographs.
“They just spoke to me so deeply,” she said. “I've been researching and loving and seeking information about Black mermaids for ever. And when she called and asked if she could be a part of the show and sent me the pictures … they were just breathtaking and so moving. And I think they will be such an asset to this show.”
• Celebrating Black Mermaids opens tomorrow at the City Gallery in Charleston, South Carolina and runs until July 9. For more information: https://rb.gy/6moeh
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