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Exploring gender issues

Mami Wata, an African water deity  

Male and female iconography, in artworks from Renaissance Italy to contemporary Africa, was the subject of the Alfred Z. Solomon Residency at the Tang Museum in October.

The three-day residency welcomed visiting art historians Henry Drewal, the Evjue-Bascom professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and Patricia Simons, of the University of Michigan. In his talk "Spirit Spouse: Art and Gender Identity in the Worship of Mami Wata," Drewal described the water deity popular across much of Africa as part mermaid, part snake-charmer, with ties to Hindu deities and Christian and Muslim saints. He says followers of water spirits like mami wata (or the male papi wata) are often drawn to them because of gender-identity crises.

For Simons, the topic was "Sex in the Kitchen: The Social Iconography of Male Bodies in Renaissance Art and Culture." Showing works such as a 16th-century painting of a sensuous kitchen scene, she pointed out that some cooking actions—ladling, grinding, grating, baking—were used as double-entendres in both text and images.

Drewal and Simons also joined a panel with Skidmore professors Adrienne Zuerner (French), Natalie Taylor (government), and Mason Stokes (English); met with students in art history classes; and joined Prof. Lisa Aronson's class "Gender and Visual Culture in Africa" to select objects from the Tang’s collection for a student exhibition that will include the construction of a Mami Wata shrine. 

The Solomon residencies are funded by a 2006 bequest to the Tang. The 2009 topic reflects the recent change of Skidmore’s women's-studies program into a gender-studies program, covering the experiences and perspectives of women, men, and intersexed people in various cultures and eras. —BM, SR