Water is life. It has been the difference between survival and death for many living beings, an element necessary for the continuation of the species.
It is also quite symbolic. It is a sign of tranquility, purification, youth, and of motion, turbulence, disturbance and destruction. It had the power to wash off literal and metaphorical dirt from people; and a ritual of ablution and an element of many religious beliefs. Water was used to signify change or a medium through which a deity brings about change.
In ancient Greece the newly dead drank the water of the river Lethe, which translates to oblivion, a waterway in the underworld, so they lose all memory of their past existence. In Book X of Plato’s The Republic, in the last step before rebirth into their new, self-chosen life on earth, the dead must drink from the ‘stream of Oblivion’.
Floods of biblical proportions, sea monsters, mermaids and sirens populate many ancient and religious texts. Violent waves and harsh weather endanger the lives of many adventurers and many artists have depicted this image throughout the ages.
The Great Wave off Kanagawa, woodprint by Japanese artist Hokusai from the early 1830s, is an iconic image of water. Part of the thirty-six views of Mount Fuji series, this print is immediately recognizable worldwide and serves as a representation of Japanese art of the period for many. Water and waves in particular were images Japanese artists explored as early as the 16th century.
People bathing are shown in a diverse range of cultures, famously depicted by French impressionists Seurat and Cezanne. Claude Monet’s water lilies are also beautiful images that inspired him to have his own garden and pool to look at the scene throughout the remainder of his life.
Water is also depicted in the pool paintings of American artist David Hockney in the 1970s. Hockney painted many iterations of his pool in Los Angeles. Blocks of color show a modern American scene with only a splash in the pool in a startling interruption introducing time to this image of stasis.
According to the Smithsonian Museum, water features frequently in origin stories. The Dogon of Mali recount tales of aqueous primordial ancestors and of a dog discovering a hidden water source during migration to a new home. The Yoruba along the Oshun River speak of a king’s daughter who was transformed into the river. Other water spirits take form as humans, animals, or a combination of both. These spirits can be protective or dangerous, depending on the proper approach.
Gabrielle Tesfaye’s short film ‘The Water Will Carry Us Home’ prominently features water in the narrative. The film is a combination of stop motion animation and live action scenes telling the story of African slaves traveling across the Atlantic. Slaves that couldn’t withstand the harsh conditions of the travel were thrown overboard when they fell ill or died. One myth has them sinking to the ocean only to be revived by water spirits. These humans transformed into mer-people, water dwelling part-fish part-human species.
Wonderful cutouts of Gabrielle’s drawings of water, spirits that cause turbulence on the slave ship and mer-people are seen. Gabrielle’s Jamaican heritage led to her exploration of West African and Caribbean mythologies. The title of the film draws inspiration of a story about an Ibo slave ship that docked at Louisiana only for the slaves to revolt and kill their captors. These men and women then threw themselves in the water hoping it will carry their spirits back home.
These untold stories of people of minority, often demonized or disregarded have left many communities in the dark about their own cultures when in new lands. Even in Africa, through the three-fold influences of Christianity and commerce, and the European mission to ‘civilize’, belief systems have become erased. Indigenous beliefs had slowly disappeared and are now often looked upon with disdain in the mainstream. The struggle is even harder when in new land.
In the final scene of the film, Gabrielle makes headphones from conch seashells – following the folk myth that you would be able to hear the sound of the ocean when putting your ear to the seashell – and sits by the beach.
The film is her connection to her ancestors and those that permanently became part of the water as their lives passed underneath.
A Côte d’Ivoire mask at the Smithsonian museum’s collection depicts MamiWata. Diverse peoples throughout Africa recognize MamiWata as a powerful water spirit. Her origins can be traced to a late 19th-century German lithograph of a female snake charmer. Interested Africans scrutinized the snake charmer’s image and invested it with a new identity: MamiWata (Mother Water). They linked her great beauty and foreignness to powers that could provide protection and wealth in an increasingly precarious world. Another wooden mask at the Smithsonian from the early 19th century comes from eastern Ijo, Nigeria. The lives and culture of the Ijo revolve around the many waterways of the Lower Niger Delta region and there is a widespread belief in water spirits. They are invoked in festivals, shrines, and masquerades. According to one myth, the masks originated when a woman who had been kidnapped by water spirits returned to her people and told them of the performances she had seen beneath the water.
Water is also at the center of the 2004 documentary Darwin’s Nightmare. The film begins with the Nile Perch in Lake Victoria, a fish that isn’t endemic to that lake and is therefore eating everything in the ecosystem. This environmental disruption spirals out to tell the story of how local fishermen and inhabitants of the fishing village have been affected by this phenomenon. Exploitation of African resources by foreign nationals, disease and death among the villagers, illicit arms trade throughout the continent are issues touched upon in the documentary. Water can be the beginning and the continuation of life for many. Any small change affects the life of many.
Israeli artist Sigalit Landau explores the Dead Sea through salt sculptures. The artist baptizes her sculptures in the Dead Sea, with the purpose of showing how water can breathe life into inanimate objects. The politics of water as many communities fight over the resource is also worth noting.
Chinese avant-garde artist Zhu Ming’s Bubble series, a performance he began in 1997, has him enter a large plastic bubble that floats in the ocean. Ming is covered in paint at the beginning but the bubble is specially designed to let some water in and as the bubble floats, across the ocean, the paint washes off his naked body. This discussion of the transience of life and infinite circle of life also calls attention to the vulnerability and aloneness of all humankind.
The seemingly unseasonable rain the past few weeks brings water to mind more frequently than usual. These were some of the few handful images this contemplation can bring to mind. Water can never be truly explored.