2022 Bermuda Biennial

An Ode to Mami Wata in Bermuda

Judith Aidoo-Saltus

Standing at over 7ft tall, Vocable #2: The Veneration of Mami Wata (aka Mother Water), whose Ecstatic Beauty and Celestial Power is Made Most Manifest as She Bestrides both Atlantic and Time, (Re)Presented in Bermuda, August 2020 by greets visitors as they enter the 2022 Bermuda Biennial.

Of her Biennial work, which pays respect to the powerful African water spirit Mami Wata (Mother Water), Judith Aidoo-Saltus says: “The ocean is my mother, and the beach is my church. Both inspire me to shine my eyes, as we say in West Africa, to see and feel and communicate what exists at the centre of so much unpredictable beauty and power. With my wife Julia as my muse and officiant, I make almost daily pilgrimages to the Atlantic to limn simple magic in search of life.”

The artist, who has American and Ghanaian parentage, splits her time between Bermuda, the US and Ghana. Both an artist and a passionate supporter of the arts, Judith is a photographer, filmmaker and author. “My prayer is that my best work will mesmerise, even for a second” she says, “and inspire the smallest shift, to allow for something new and better to take root in all of us. Then, we can together draw a series of maps so we can easily find our way back home before, of course, we begin again.”

As Bermuda prepares for its second ever Pride Parade this weekend, we caught up with Judith to discuss the importance of marriage equality, what it means to exhibit in the Bermuda Biennial for the first time, and how Bermuda is her centre of gravity, but Africa is the source of her soul.

Top: The 2022 Bermuda Biennial A New Vocabulary: Past. Present. Future., Vocable #2 The Veneration of Mami Wata can be seen in the centre. Above: Judith Aidoo-Saltus.

BNG: This is the first time that you have exhibited in the Bermuda Biennial. What does it mean to you to be included in the exhibition?

JAS: It is a beautiful honor and privilege to be included in the Bermuda Biennial. I am humbled and grateful. It signifies to me that all the time and effort that I have spent learning to craft beauty and meaning over literally thousands of photographs and dozens of years were not in vain. There was a greater purpose, and that includes sharing my work with the world. Now that I have this exposure, and with it a heightened sense of courage, I now call myself an artist and know in my bones that I can back it up. 

BNG: Vocable #2 references the powerful African water deity Mami Wata. On a recent trip to Ghana, you visited two shrines dedicated to Mami Wata, guided by professor and well-known artist Dr Sela Adjei, to deepen your understanding of this spiritual belief system. Could you please tell us about it?

JAS: In Ghana, my fatherland, I had heard and seen continuous references to the water spirit known as Mami Wata for nearly 5 decades. However, I had never thought to visit a shrine or to learn more about this indigenous knowledge system. Fortunately, art has a way of opening the mind and spirit to exploration. I thought that having been inspired to name my Biennial photograph Vocable #2: The Veneration of Mami Wata (aka Mother Water) whose Ecstatic Beauty and Celestial Power is Made Most Manifest as She Bestrides both Atlantic and Time, (Re)Presented in Bermuda, August 2020, the least I could do was to actually visit a shrine dedicated to Mami Wata the next time I was in Ghana.

Two weeks before the opening of the Biennial, renowned artist and friend Kwame Akoto-Bamfo was kind enough to introduce me to fellow artist and educator Dr Sela Adjei, an expert in the intersection of traditional religion and art. Over the course of a 2-day visit to eastern Ghana, and numerous research papers and photographs, he shared aspects of our history, culture and traditional spiritual expression that were completely new to me. What a gift!

We know that our first human ancestors originated in Africa at least some 70,000 years ago, and Christianity only arrived 600 years ago when the first Europeans landed in Africa (coincidentally in Elmina situated in modern Ghana). Even for the mathematically challenged among us, this leaves at least 69,400 years of wisdom and spiritual practices from which to learn. It beggars belief that indigenous Africans still practicing their traditional religion have nothing to teach us. I am gratified that I was well received by two Mami Wata shrines and I was permitted to ask questions about their beliefs and practices, and their art on the shrine walls, which for them embodies prayer. 

Judith Aidoo-Saltus (left) on a recent trip to Ghana to explore the history and significance of Mami Wata.

BNG: The subject of the photograph is your wife, Julia, whom you describe as your muse. The two of you made history when you married in 2017. A union made more powerful in recent months by the UK Privy Council’s controversial decision to uphold a ban on same sex marriage in Bermuda, first introduced in 2018. Marriage equality is, unfortunately, a very divisive issue in Bermuda. How can we overcome these differences?

JAS: Thank you for this question. I thank God for Julia and her welcoming family and community of friends on island. With the exception of two or three outliers, Bermudians have been welcoming and generous. Please allow me to formally thank every single human being on island (and across the globe for that matter!) that has treated us, and people like us, with the dignity, compassion and respect that we deserve as fellow human beings. Thank you for modelling genuine charity and moral leadership for others to follow in the fullness of time. 

Truth is, it was a miracle that Julia and I got married in Bermuda at all. We had planned to marry in NYC and had gone down to City Hall to formally register in late April 2017. Two weeks later, the Supreme Court of Bermuda declares same sex couples have the right to marry, thanks to the historic efforts of Winston Godwin and his Canadian spouse Greg De Roche. Without missing a beat, Julia and I immediately submitted our wedding bans, understanding as lawyers that legal challenges were certain to follow. We further assumed that Winston and Greg would be first, but they decided on a Canadian wedding instead. As a result, Julia and I ended up walking hand in hand, grinning from ear to ear, to a government office building to exchange our simple heartfelt wedding vows before our family and friends. But, not before engaging lawyers to respond to a gratuitous legal challenge by a Bermudian who knows us not. Our entire wedding experience was so beautiful and painful and joyous and tortured. Much like life. 

Bottom line: with or without the imprimatur of the state, the church or our families, we found and lovingly chose one another. Like countless lovers before us, we were prepared to cry and walk away, as and if required, from our traditions and families and cultures to be free, together. 

How can we overcome these differences? Nothing like the fullness of time. Eventually, there will be a critical mass of compassionate leaders with intellect, integrity and courage, who decide, often with the encouragement of relentless activism and an act or two of God herself, that the time has come for freedom and justice to prevail. For everyone. When that happens again, and of course it will, don’t tarry, folks! Run fast toward freedom! Take as many with you as you can! 

BNG: You have American and Ghanaian parentage and split your time between Bermuda, the US and Ghana. How do each of the countries feed both your world view and your artistic output?

JAS: Bermuda is my centre of gravity because my heart is here. Africa is the source of my soul. Ghana, my fatherland, makes me who I am. It colors my words, my spirit, my sense of humor. The US is my motherland: it is my root. As twisted and tortured as it is, I cleave to its beauty and its capacity for growth. So, you see, I need all three places to feel fully alive and at home in the world. From this triangular base, I look out at the world and I can see things that the average person may not see. I perceive trends and vulnerabilities and possibilities too. Most of all, I can see beauty, even as I feel the suffering of others. This may be my superpower. 

Detail of 2022 Bermuda Biennial artwork Vocable #2: The Veneration of Mami Wata (aka Mother Water), whose Ecstatic Beauty and Celestial Power is Made Most Manifest as She Bestrides both Atlantic and Time, (Re)Presented in Bermuda, August 2020 by Judith Aidoo-Saltus. 

BNG: As an artist, you work across a variety of media, including photography and film, and are currently writing your first book. Could you please tell us about it?

JAS: My working title is Field Notes of a Soul Safarian. This is a guide for those who value a life of wonder and magic. It is based on lessons that I have gleaned in the company of some of the most extraordinary creatives, road warriors and thinkers. 

BNG: Last year, you wrote an article, Field Notes from an African Investor, describing how investment in the arts in Africa is rarely profitable but it is essential. Could you please tell us about this?

JAS: It took me a long time to understand that not all investments need to make money in the short or medium term. Clearly, an investor has to win more than she loses in order to earn the right to act as a fiduciary. All the same, I believe part of the duty of the visionaries among us, especially those with financial resources, is to invest in people, a community, or even an idea for the greater good. This is critical, especially for a functioning democracy.

So, I consider an investment in art and culture as a necessary part of strengthening any society. It is like protecting the environment. Art is like air. We need it to thrive. Accordingly, please kiss or encourage or thank the next art benefactor you see for actively investing in culture so as to make us better people. 

BNG: A passionate supporter of the arts and an experienced producer, you have holdings in television, publishing, feature film and theatre production. How can we support both the arts, and artists, here in Bermuda?

JAS: Invest resources of all kinds, from time to finances to education, in creating an artistic mindset from the very young to the very old. Convene people from all walks of life to share multiple ways of seeing, and to imagine alternative futures. Then, let’s activate our best ideas with all due speed so we can progress together.