Mermaids and Merwomen in Black Folklore: A Fiber Arts Exhibition in Charleston, SC

24 Aug

Quilt by Doris Prouty

So there is a pretty amazing exhibition opening up in Charleston, South Carolina, in the next few days: Mermaids and Merwomen in Black Folklore: A Fiber Arts Exhibition, and an astonishing array of opening events surrounding it, including talks by Mami Wata expert Henry Drewal (with whom I did a very cool interview for Mermaids magazine, just you wait), a premiere of a mermaidly film by poet Bianca Spriggs, a Yemaya’s Feast Day Ceremony and Celebration (read about ocean goddess Yemaya here) presided over by Yoruba High Priest & High Chieftain Nathanial Styles, and an opening reception and “Fin-tab-u-lous” after party with shrimp and grits, music, poetry, dancing and a “few mer-kisses exchanged.” The tradition of mermaids in African art and religion is honestly one of the coolest things I’ve learned about since becoming a mermaid aficionado, and here is just a breathtaking exhibit celebrating this tradition in its past and present incarnations… so if you can, go!

Mermaids and Merwomen in Black Folklore: A Fiber Arts Exhibition is at the City Gallery at Waterfront Park in Charleston, SC, from August 28 to October 28, 2012, and the opening weekend events are next weekend, September 6th through 8th; the full schedule is at the end of this post. The exhibition is curated by Torreah “Cookie” Washington, who talks to me about the exhibition below. You can contact her for more info & reservations at 843.259.8108.

[Update: Cookie tells me that they’re still raising the money to bring in Henry Drewal. Check out the indiegogo site with tons of mermaid schwag!]

What inspired Mermaids and Merwomen in Black Folklore: A Fiber Arts Exhibition?
I had never heard of Black mermaids, but while researching Black Goddesses I stumbled upon it. I was hooked, fascinated!

What first interested you about merfolk, and black merfolk specifically?

Quilt by Laura Gadson

So little is know by the general public about Africans and African Americans other than slavery. To learn that goddesses that looked like ME were worshiped 2,500 years before Jesus Christ is empowering knowledge.

Creation, or Virgin Mother, stories such as Yemaya, are universal. Inspired by the folklore and visual history of African water divinities and explorations of this subject by scholars, such as Henry Drewal’s cross-cultural study of the Mami Wata, Mermaids and Merwomen in Black Folklore invites art quilters to interpret stories and depictions of water spirits in African and the Afro-Atlantic world.

Can you talk about Mami Wata and the African belief systems this art draws from?
Well the most important thing to note about Mami Wata is that “she” is not just one goddess but a is a pantheon of deities are often depicted as merwomen. I would passionately like to try to dispel the myth that Mermaids area recent phenomena in African history. Let’s look at the Dogon tribes of Mali’s creation myth, who believe that creation of the world was brought about by mermaid/mermen creatures they named Nommos. Evidence shows the Dogon have known about the existence of these mermaid-like divinities for more than 4,000 years.

Can you tell me about one or two pieces that are of special interest?
The inspiration for this fiber arts presentation is the mermaid archetype. The show also encapsulates the history and belief systems of those forcibly removed from Africa and carried across the ocean to the Americas. For many, including those of the Afro-Atlantic, water connects the world, the otherworld and afterlife. Powerful water deities have lived on across the African Diaspora. Called many names, these deities remain beautiful, powerful, and provocative, as is evidenced in these works of art.

Doll by Pam Wollis

Every piece of art, quilts and dolls, is beautiful and engaging in their own way… Many of them address the mermaids that followed the slave ships to return the souls of the drown one back to the motherland…

What is most exciting to me about this exhibit is that we have commissioned poem to be written by some awesome poets in a color-drenched catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, invites you to celebrate the relationship between fine craft and soaring poetic verse that speaks of the black mermaid. Dive into this rich, juicy, Mermaid poetry. This vivid affecting, powerful collection accompanies the artwork sensationally. Taken together, you’ll be baptized into the undersea world of the Merpeople. Making a splash in verse are Affrilachian Poet and Cave Canem Fellow Bianca Spriggs, Spoken-word poet and musician Kurtis Lamkin, poet and artist Akua Lezli Hope, and Poet Laureate of South Carolina Marjory Heath Wentworth to name a few.

Can you tell me about the Yemaya Feast Day Celebration you have planned?
Yes, I am so excited that High Priest High Chief Nathaniel Styles and Prince Emmanuel Adérelé, both of the Yoruba Nation, will travel to Charleston, coming directly back from Nigeria to honor Yemaya. What will make this even more meaningful is that the ceremony will take place on Sullivan’s Island. Charleston, South Carolina, was the Americas main port of entry for enslaved Africans, and hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children who endured the Middle Passage and ended up at the slave markets were first quarantined on Sullivan’s Island. From 40 to 60 percent of African-Americans alive today can trace their ancestral roots to West Africa through the Sullivan’s Island/Charleston gateway. So we will also be releasing the souls of the ancestors at these scared waters.

Why do you think mermaids are so appealing to people in general?
The Merfolk are magical, mysterious, beautiful and terrifying. Every water-based culture has mermaid stories.

Can just anyone come to the three-day celebration of Mermaids and Merwomen in Black Folklore: A Fiber Arts Exhibition?
YES! ABSOLUTELY. Anyone who would like to come to Charleston is more than welcome. Contact me for details at 843-259-8108.

Mermaid & Merwomen In Black Folklore: A Fiber Arts Exhibition

Thursday Sept 6th Donors lunch at Runaway Bay Restaurant
1045 Everglades Avenue North Charleston, SC 29405
(Old Navy Base) Public may meet and greet Dr Drewal and artists that have arrived for event from noon to 2 pm. ($100 for Donors/$25 for Artists)

Let’s Talk Mermaids: High Chief High Priest Nathanial Styles & Dr Henry Drewal
Thursday Sept 6th @ 6:30 pm to 8:30
Albert Simmons Center for the Arts, 2nd floor Rehearsal Hall, 54 St Philip St., Charleston, SC, 29401 Free to Public

Friday Sept 7th Yemaya’s Feast Day
Bus to transport for Artists and friends will leave from Lockwood Blvd Marriott promptly at 6 PM. Meet in hotel lobby at 5:45 PM $15

6:30 PM “Waterbody” By Bianca Spriggs

Presenting the World Premiere of the film “Waterbody” By Bianca Spriggs
$5 Sullivans Island, SC
WATERBODY is a short film based on a poem of the same title by Bianca Spriggs from her collection, “How Swallowtails Become Dragons.” In this contemporary urban fantasy steeped in magical realism, a lonely woman finds and adopts a sickly mermaid and nurses her back to health. In the process, the mermaid turns into a human and the woman turns into a mermaid. At its core, this is a narrative about the power of friendship, but also the power of reinvention and the discovery of one’s true identity.

Yemaya’s Feast Day Ceremony/Celebration 7 pm
Presided over by Yoruba High Priest & High Chieftain Nathanial Styles. Walk from Ft Moultrie’s Visitors Center on Sullivans Island, SC across parking lot to “The Bench by the Side of the Road,” Sunset will be around 7:30 PM Bring offerings and please bring a monetary offering for Chief Styles and Prince Emmanuel Adérelé (suggested donation $15 +)

Dinner for artists and supporters immediately following. We will share a meal and fellowship with Chief Nathanial and Prince Emmanuel Adérelé at a local eatery, Gilligan’s of Mt Pleasant. This is a self pay event.

Black Mermaid Tales in the Americas: Dr Henry Drewal speech
Saturday 3 to 4PM
Avery Center for African American Research, 125 Bull Street Charleston, SC 29424 Free to Public. Donations accepted.

Saturday 5 PM The Main Event: Mermaids & Merwomen In Black Folklore: A Fiber Arts Exhibition
Artists Opening Reception
City Gallery at Waterfront Park, 34 Prioleau Street, 29401 Artists Opening Reception and release of the book BLACK MERMAIDS in VISION & VERSE.
5 to 8 PM Free Open to the Public

After Party
Saturday 8:30 PM until 10 PM Celebration of The Artists with catered shrimp and grits dinner, music and perhaps a poetry reading or three! Location YWCA 106 Coming Street
(1 block off Calhoun Street) free parking! Invitation only. $30.


6 Responses to “Mermaids and Merwomen in Black Folklore: A Fiber Arts Exhibition in Charleston, SC”

  1. Marisa August 24, 2012 at 3:33 PM #

    Amazing! As a priest of Yemaya who has always been obsessed with mermaids, I’m so happy to see this and so very much want to attend!

  2. Vanessa August 24, 2012 at 7:53 PM #

    Did you know that mermaids are also present in Indigenous Australian Culture! Here’s a blogpost I wrote about it that may interest you. Great article and wish I was in the US to see the exhibition.


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