Tivoli Circle

Mami Wata statue unveiled in New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS – In 2017, the city of New Orleans, Louisiana, removed a statue of the confederate general Robert E. Lee that had stood atop a pedestal in the city since 1884, the last of the Confederate monuments that once dotted the city. The site once called Lee Circle and now called Tivoli Circle, has been empty ever since, except for the now-featureless pedestal.

That changed last week when a new artwork was unveiled at the site. The new sculpture, Sentinel (Mami Wata), represents Mami Wata or La Sirène, who is venerated in many Indigenous African and Diasporic religions, including the Louisiana Voodoo for which New Orleans is famous.

Sentinel (Mami Wata) is a 12-foot tall bronze sculpture that depicts a spoon-shaped female form that has a snake coiling about her. The spoon-shaped figure is a recurring form in traditional African design – ARTnews notes that the form is a symbol of status in Zulu culture.

The unveiling of the sculpture was the finale of the Prospect.5 international art exhibition, which began in October. Prospect.5’s website describes the sculpture as “an homage to history and continued presence of traditions of the African diaspora in New Orleans.”

Tivoli Circle

Simone Leigh, Sentinel (Mami Wata), 2020-21, standing in Tivoli Circle, New Orleans [via Reddit]

The statue is the creation of Simone Leigh, whose art frequently works to recenter the lives and experiences of Black women. Sentinel (Mami Wata) is no different in this regard; in her statement about the work, Leigh states that she sees this work as part of a larger constellation of “public art, conversation, and historical memory” that “decenters whiteness and the legacies of colonialism, renewing access to knowledge and culture that has been suppressed by the falsehoods of white supremacy.”

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Leigh has created several previous sculptures with the same design as the one now on display in New Orleans, including Sentinel IV, which stands at the University of Texas – Austin. The snake, however, renders this sculpture distinct from the others, and directly ties it to imagery associated with Mami Wata. The nearby presence of the waterfront inspired the idea to place a water spirit in the location.

Leigh is a major figure in the contemporary art world – she has received numerous awards for her work, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Hugo Boss Prize. Unlike many artists of her stature, who might work in miniature and hire others to cast her works, Leigh creates full-size models out of clay and crafts the entirety of her sculptures by herself. She will represent the United States at the Venice Biennale this April, one of the major international art exhibitions. “This will be the first time the U.S. Pavilion is entirely dedicated to the experiences and contributions of Black women,” said Jill Medvedow, co-commissioner of the U.S. pavilion at this year’s Biennale.

Tivoli Circle

Simone Leigh, Sentinel (Mami Wata), 2020-21, standing in Tivoli Circle, New Orleans [Alex Marks, courtesy Creative Counsel]

In replacing a statue of Lee – a white man who, as the general of the Confederate Army, led a military campaign to maintain the slavery of Black people in the United States – with the figure of an African spirit, Sentinel engages in this recentering of Black lives in an unmistakable way. “The title of this work means ‘guard’ or ‘watchman,’” says the artist’s statement, “and it honors the work done by activists, citizens, and New Orleans city officials to remove symbols of white supremacy from public view, while also suggesting the possibility for a new protective spirit at this central downtown location.”

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This goes beyond just the subject matter of the piece: even the placement of the statue is meant to communicate a different relationship between the viewer, the work, and the community that surrounds both of them.

The Lee statue was originally placed atop a huge column in the center of Lee Circle. Leigh’s statue, on the other hand, is placed on the ground, at the human level. “Ultimately, Simone felt, and we agreed,” said Naima J. Keith and Diana Nawi, the artistic directors of Prospect New Orleans to ARTnews, “that because the original placement of the Robert E. Lee atop the pedestal was one of power and domination—the statue loomed over the city, symbolizing the tyranny of white supremacy—that her work should be closer to the level of the individual.”

Mami Wata is a figure in numerous traditional African and African Diasporic Religions, with many different traditions surrounding water deities and spirits syncretized into her worship. She has an especially prominent following in the West African countries of Ghana, Togo, and Benin.

In 2020, Benin saw the coronation of Hounnon Behumbeza as the Supreme Chief of Mami Wata was featured in live television broadcasts. In the Americas, she is part of Vodou traditions as the lwa La Sirène, who shares in Mami Wata’s association with mirrors, a symbol of her beauty. These are only a few manifestations of the deity; as Leigh’s artist’s statement mentions, she “is known under many names across the African diaspora, including Yemaya, Yemoja, and Iemanja,” and the ritual practices, beliefs, and iconography surrounding her vary as well.

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Her veneration has recently had a surge of interest from popular culture: she is a major figure in Nikyatu Jusu’s new film Nanny (2022), which just premiered at Sundance, and she also is mentioned in works like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s The Water Dancer and Natasha Bowen’s Skin of the Sea. Pagan musician S.J. Tucker’s song, “La Sirene,” from her 2011 album Rootless, is about the deity.

Sentinel (Mami Wata) will remain at Tivoli Circle until July 22nd.

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About Eric O. Scott

Eric O. Scott was raised by witches. He writes about his life as a second-generation Pagan, pilgrimage, pop culture, and politics. He is the Pagan Perspectives Editor for The Wild Hunt and a contributing editor for Killing the Buddha. His first novel, The Lives of the Apostates, was published in 2013 by Moon Books. He has an MFA in creative writing from the University of Missouri – Kansas City and an PhD in English from the University of Missouri – Columbia. His middle name is not “Odin.”