Cookie Washington is glowing as she speaks about Mermaids and Merwomen in Black Folklore: A Fiber Arts Exhibition, which she curated for the MOJA Arts Festival. Several things bring a smile to her face this afternoon: She’s just received a large stack of freshly printed flyers along with a stunning quilt in the shape of a mermaid (it was lost in the mail). And to top it all off, Washington’s son will soon arrive home from Afghanistan just in time for dinner. “All of my dreams are coming true,” she says.
It’s a happy time indeed for Washington, who got mermaid fever about five years ago when she found a book at the library called Her Stories: African American Folk Tales, Fairy Tales, and True Tales by Virginia Hamilton. It focuses on mermaid legends of the sea islands, and since then, Washington has immersed herself in water spirit mythology. She decided to bring this beautifully whimsical theme to life in the form of an epic fiber art exhibit composed solely of works by African-American artists. In previous years, she has shared several pieces from the collection, but she says the City Gallery event represents a much more complete exhibit.
The works are all ornately told narratives, stories that Washington hopes to capture for future generations. “One of the reasons I think this is important is because some of the first mermaid stories came to America with the enslaved Africans,” she says. “They worshipped water spirits and water gods and mermaids, and when they got here they were forced to give up their pagan god worship. So much of the folklore has been lost. Many African-Americans do not know these stories and it’s important to me because I’m a great believer of way-showers. I believe sometimes you don’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been.”
Washington wants to bring these stories of mermaid worship, which she says predate Christ by 2,500 years, into everyone’s lives, particularly a young audience. “I want little African-American children, especially girls, to feel a pride of place,” she says. “I want them to think, wow, even if it’s just a myth, it’s a really great myth, and maybe it’s something that can guide my spirit.”
She also wants to help young viewers feel more comfortable around water. “The number one cause of accidental death among children in America, of any ethnicity from zero to six years old, is drowning,” she says. Considering we live on a peninsula surrounded by water on three sides, providing education to poor children who cannot afford lessons is a huge concern of hers. “We need to raise the awareness of water and water safety, and you can’t even think about being safe in something you’re afraid of,” she says. “I want little children to come away and say, I remember that mermaid, and she could swim. I remember the beautiful mermaid with the sparkly scales and I think I can be a mermaid. I want them to feel that.”
The exhibit, over 100 pieces strong, showcases the amazing skills involved in the intricate craft of quilting and doll-making. Almost 70 artists are represented, hailing from West Ashley to California, from ages 15 to 80. The flagship quilt was made by New York artist Laura Gadson, whose piece tells the story of 75 would-be African slaves who drowned themselves to avoid their fate, and the sea goddesses who escorted their souls safely back home across the water. Other contributors include Michael Cummings, the country’s premier male quilter, and Washington Post writer Esther Iverem, who shared several works, including a cloth book. The exhibition also features a recently published book of poetry filled with works Washington commissioned from the likes of S.C. Poet Laureate Marjory Wentworth and former City Paper columnist Will Moredock.
Washington has planned a series of events for the exhibition that are sea-centric. The public is invited to lunch with the artists on Sept. 6 at Runaway Bay, overlooking the Cooper River, as well as an opening reception on Sept. 8. A privately sponsored Yemaya feast ceremony will take place Sept. 7 on Sullivan’s Island; Prince Emmanuel Adérelé is flying in from Nigeria to perform a cleansing ritual there in honor of the sea deities. “We’ll put sweet potatoes and pieces of apple in the ocean to honor the mother goddess of the ocean, Yemaya,” Washington says. “We’re not trying to get anyone to change their own religion, but to look at life in a different way and realize that water touches everything, and everything touches water.”