Artist Ty Collins next to his found-object sculpture, made with materials like a hula hoop, plastic bottles, nets and other items of trash that he upcycled into a depiction of the water spirit Mami Wata | Photos by Natalie Paris Rieth

During a walk through  at City Gallery at Joe Riley Waterfront Park on Sunday afternoon, light beamed in from the oceanside and filled the two-story building. Inside was a celebration of Black wonder, as attendees took in Black Mermaids: From Africa to America. It’s an exhibition inspired by the sea and Black royalty, magical stories people will pass onto their children forever.

Black Mermaids: From Africa to America features a variety of artworks, like these mermaid dolls created by artists Cathy Alvarez, Pat Mclean Smith and Cora Williams

The artists used mixed media, such as shells and glass, to create elements like mermaid tails on large canvas. Yarn was used to create natural-looking hair in various styles–braids, twists, afros and locs. The exhibit featured dozens of award-winning fiber artists who came together to create artwork embodying Black goddesses and Black faith. 

The exhibition was split into two floors, each wall covered with three or four pieces of artwork. Many of the pieces were three-dimensional, jumping off the canvas. In addition to canvases, there were  yarn dolls, clay figures and quilts sewn with images of the ocean and mermaids.

One particularly striking piece was “Rescue the Perishing: Mami Wata,”  by Veronica Mays. Mami Wata is an African water spirit. In the piece, the mermaid in the water (interpreted to be Mami Wata) is swimming far behind a boat that seems to be carrying people further away from her. One single person can be seen jumping from the boat and diving into the ocean. The legend of Mami Wata is that she would take her followers to the spiritual world underwater and when she returned them, they would have a new understanding of the spiritual world. She was also known to bring great fortune. 

The exhibit also had digital artwork. One piece similar to a graphic novel illustration was called “Subaquatic & Girls with Curls,” by Sarah A. White. It showcased how freely the mermaid’s natural curly hair flows underwater, versus when the mermaid is out of water brushing through her hair in the bathtub — a visual representation of Black women and their experience with natural hair. When it’s wet, it’s free. It flows with the water. Once dry again, it isn’t as free and has to be detangled so that it doesn’t become knotted. 

Each art piece mixed fiction with real Black stories so the audience viewing it could see themselves through the artwork. The goal of this exhibit is to tell a new story, one that goes further back than slavery. Black women are queens. They are goddesses. They are where Black people come from. This triumphant history deserves to be shown just as much as the traumatic stories.

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IF YOU PLAN TO GO: The exhibition runs through July 9, 2023. It is free and open to all during City Gallery hours. 

Aiyana Hardy is an arts journalism master’s degree student at Syracuse University.

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