Amidst the sprawling, cavernous architecture of the Knockdown Center in Maspeth, Queens, a radical and challenging exhibition featuring female artists of the African Diaspora is making waves with audiences. The interdisciplinary collection of works tackles Knockdown’s large gallery spaces with ease. Mixing ambitious installation, video, sculpture, photography, and virtual reality, the exhibit offers a seamless yet intentionally confounding, experience for viewers. MAMI, co-curated by Dyani Douze and Ali Rosa-Salas, brings together a provocative, dexterous roster that includes Salome Asega, Nona Faustine, Doreen Garner, Aya Rodriguez-Izumi, Rodan Tekle, plus collaborative duo MALAXA.
The show examines the pantheon of African water deities known collectively as Mami Wata, a sometimes-half-aquatic, gender-bending, often-contradictory plurality of beings. Douze and Rosa-Salas describe Mami Wata as being “called upon by those pursuing wealth, wisdom, emotional guidance, and sexual liberation. However, contrary to monolithic representations, Mami Wata is the embodiment of hybridity.”
We caught up with the curators after one of their accompanying public programs: MAMI Market, a day-long event featuring vendors, workshops, and performances all linked to the tenets of their curatorial vision.
The Creators Project: How did you choose the artists for MAMI?
Ali Rosa-Salas: We’ve known, and worked with Salome for a while. But so much of the show came together because of online communication. We learned about Nona from an article on the Huffington Post. Tabita Rezaire and Alicia Mersy of MALAXA, we’ve never met in real life; they’re in Johannesburg and Tel Aviv. Doreen, we also found online—but she’s Brooklyn-based!
We found out about Aya, who’s in her first year of an MFA at SVA, on Instagram. Rodan’s been in the game for a while. She’s a new media artist, designer, art director, but this is one of the first times she’s contextualized in an exhibition. Honestly, even the local relationships were cultivated online.
You've stated, “MAMI isn't yet another space to project respectability politics on women of color's identities, creative practices, and ways of being.” It felt pointed and direct.
ARS: It comes back to our desire to highlight that Mami Wata cannot be grasped singularly—even which pronouns to describe them. It resonated with us as women of the African Diaspora as, similarly, we’re not monoliths; we, too, have multiple identities. For instance, I'm reminded on Facebook about things I've posted from like five years ago… Half of it makes me shake my head. It reminds me how much my thinking and self representation is always changing.
The work is open to critique, but who thinks it’s their business to critique the women, as individuals, in the show?
ARS: Recently, we’re seeing these “all-women” shows, contextualizing all the artists by a singular “X” element. That’s not what MAMI, or Mami Wata, is about. We want the Y, the Z, the A, B, and C, too.
The show is, and I mean this as an absolute compliment, often disorienting.
Dyani Douze: That’s because the media in the exhibition isn’t singular either. And it’s why we curated so many different public programs. Every aspect reflects a pantheon of practices and ways of being.
You’re giving the artists space and trust. They don’t even all agree on the exhibition’s topic. Doreen Garner, in an article for The Fader, called Mami Wata, “a distraction from very real black women that are powerful, selfless, and confident.”
Douze: [laughs] Doreen’s comments were on point!
ARS: People thought we’d be upset by her comments for some reason.
Douze: We weren’t upset at all. Doreen was about the show from day one, but she was clear with us on her perspective. Why would we want to produce a show where every artist has the same take. Ali and I are all about the contradictions, the multiple reads.
The scope of the audience that’s come through MAMI is huge. How does that feel?
Douze: Whenever I’m making work as an artist, I create for other women, femme and non-binary folks of color. But as a curator, I do think about a wider audience. After the opening and MAMI Market, I got feedback from so many different types of people, intergenerationally, saying that we all needed this, that they were feeling very uplifted by the turnout and range of people supporting the artists, vendors, speakers, and performers.
ARS: We've really envisioned MAMI as a hub of activity, and want to make the most of this home base while we have access to it. The artworks serve as the anchors of this home which keep us grounded as we crack up, debate, hug, drink, and dance together. We aim to do this work with love and empathy, and by dispersing authorship through chain curatorial strategies. How can we help spread resources as far and wide as possible? How can we hold each other closer while also letting go?