“Oya” (above) by Ashley Brown is just one of more than 100 works of art in Celebrating Black Mermaids.

Torreah “Cookie” Washington of Charleston deliberately set the opening of her latest fine art curation as a bit of clever counterprogramming. 

The weekend of May 26 marks the opening of Disney’s live-action remake of The Little Mermaid but also — as a corrective to what she described as Disney’s “cutesiness” — it’s the opening of Celebrating Black Mermaids: From Africa to America, an exhibition of more than 120 mixed-media works. 


As a celebrator of Black mermaid mythology and a mother and grandmother to girls, Washington says she isn’t fond of the fairy tale’s overarching message.

“Black mermaids are regarded as goddesses, and I don’t think any of them would give up being a goddess to get out of the water and marry a prince,” Washington said. “I’m hoping that African American little girls come away from the show with a sense of pride, rather than wanting to be Ariel.” 

Ranging from photography to fiber art, the Celebrating Black Mermaids exhibit enlivens stories of African goddesses as mermaids and water spirits. On view at City Gallery at Waterfront Park until July 9, the exhibit will have its opening reception from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. May 27 at the gallery, preceding an ancestor blessing by Ashanti Kingdom High Chief ​​Nathaniel B. Styles Jr. earlier in the day.  

Mermaid and water spirits have been worshiped for more than 4,000 years, predating the worship of Jesus Christ, Washington said. Over time, the half-human, half-creature depiction of African water spirits combined with the European depiction of the half-human, half-fish we know today. Celebrating Black Mermaids delves into these millenia-old beliefs, which are passed on through oral traditions, and honors the significance of Black mermaids historically as well as in the belief systems of those forcibly removed from Africa. 

Internationally recognised artist Tony Williams made three pieces for the show, including “Yemaya Black Mermaids.” | Images provided.

“We have seen a large array of what European cultures deem is what a mermaid is, but all cultures have some form of water deity, and from those water deities, mermaids exist,” said Ohio artist Tony Williams. “It’s important that all those cultures be celebrated. It’s important to see the representation of oneself.”  

Williams, internationally recognized for his indigo works, made three pieces for Washington’s show: “Mermaid Warrior,” a life-size quilt with cowry shell and iridescent fabric detailing; “Yemaya Black Mermaids,” a painting on dyed pulp paper; and “Olokun,” an articulated paper work that captures the swimming motion of the African deity. His work explores indigo, batik and African kola nut dying practices, all rooted in his own ancestral studies. 

Michigan fiber artist Toya Thomas’s featured quilt, “Better Than Bondage,” conceptualizes a scene from the movie Amistad of a mother throwing herself and her child overboard. Having experienced the pains of enslavement overseas, many forcibly removed Africans chose to end their lives to escape, she said. Thomas’s quilt retells this story by adding a mermaid who receives them and carries them to a better place. As a tribute to the journey of her ancestor Thomas from Africa to America, she crafted the mermaid in her own likeness.   

“I hope that people come away with an appreciation of the art, but also become more knowledgeable of the stories that each piece has to tell,” Thomas said.   

California-based textile and installation artist Patricia Montgomery’s mermaid doll Alabaster portrays the mysterious African water goddess Mami Wata, whose powers were known to grant wealth, power and fertility. Before ritual dances were outlawed in America, enslaved Africans worshiped Mami Wata by playing music and dancing into a trance-like state. 

She’s the doll that can dance with us today,” Montgomery said, “allowing us to have that same feeling of being connected to something bigger than ourselves.” The doll’s body is fabricated with batik fabric that Mongomery said embodies Alabaster with rhythm and movement, and is embellished with alabaster and cowry shells, beads and crystals.

Washington said the show, which includes more than 80 artists, will be even bigger than a Black mermaids exhibit she mounted in 2012, also at City Gallery. 

“In history books we are not talking about Black women,” Washington said. “And I want Black women and girls to know that the story of Black women doesn’t start on a plantation somewhere in the South. We are not coming up from slavery. We are descended from being worshiped as goddesses and queens.” 

Natalie Rieth is an arts journalism master’s degree student at Syracuse University.