The water spirit Mami Wata is one of the most respected deities in West Africa. 

“She rarely leaves the water and when she does, she enters our dreams,” says photographer Malike Sidibe, who was born in Côte d’Ivoire and grew up in Guinea before moving to New York City in 2010 at age 13. “She rises from the depth of the sea; she can change into any shape and form. She is praised partly because she can bring good fortune. She is thankful when she’s worshiped, and evil if you offend her.”

Sidibe’s description comes from the artist statement accompanying his Mamiwata series, available for purchase on Your Art Gallery. We caught up with Malike to learn more about his unique depictions of Mami Wata, the creative process behind the underwater, otherworldly photos, and his experience with the growing arts program, NYC Salt.

How did you first get into photography?

When I was growing up in Africa, my father had a small, touristy camera. I was taking photos and he let me keep it. I didn’t realize then that photography was what I wanted to do, but it stuck with me. When I came to America, I saved up for a more professional camera and started shooting.

After a few months of shooting, I asked the photography teacher at my school if there were any after-school programs and she recommended NYC Salt. I went to Salt that same day and signed up for lessons on Thursdays. I ended up going to their studio pretty much every day, Monday through Friday, to figure out what I wanted to do artistically.

It sounds like NYC Salt has been a big part of your journey, yes?

Definitely. They are really helpful and feel like a second home. I know I can go there any time and ask anyone anything, and they’ll help me. I made a lot of friends during the program and we went on field trips to meet professional photographers. The experience has been amazing. It’s great to have creative people around me.

Describe Mami Wata in your own words.

Mami Wata is a mermaid-like figure, with a woman’s upper body and the hindquarters of a fish or serpent. In some tales, she is fully human in appearance. She is usually female, but sometimes male. Her spirit has been described in many ways and many cultures. In Trinidad and Tobago, Mami Wata plays the role of guardian of nature, punishing overzealous hunters or woodcutters.

Why did you find this figure so inspiring?

Those who have had encounters with Mami Wata describe her energy differently. Some say she communicates without words. Others describe their encounters as very fleeting. Some believe that we are more inclined to be open to messages and inspiration from Mami Wata when we are in contact with water. I wanted to capture the dreamy and abstract stories about Mami Wata and her symbolic beauty.

How did you compose your Mamiwata photos?

First, I went to Los Angeles, where it’s much warmer, and lived there for a year. I used all of these stories and legends about Mami Wata for inspiration but didn’t really know what the final work would look like. I decided to work with models, underwater, using light and the texture of the water to capture the abstract, angelic and ephemeral feel that I could envision but not quite convey until I knew it when I saw it. The Mamiwata shoots were definitely out of my and the models’ comfort zones! From there, the colors and textures came to life through creative editing.

How has Your Art Gallery helped you promote your photography?

Your Art Gallery is an easy-to-use platform where I can upload and sell my work. It’s nice to know that someone could be looking at my profile or possibly even making a purchase while I’m sleeping. It also helps to not have to worry about printing; Your Art Gallery takes care of it.

What are you working on next?

I’m starting a project titled, Authenticity, to highlight African creatives living abroad using their platform to inspire the youth to dream big with art—no matter where they come from, what country or village they live in, no matter their financial position, or how many times they’ve been told that they can’t become who they want to be…no matter how many times they’ve been told they weren’t good enough because of the color of their skin. I want them to know that they can achieve their goals by just being themselves: Africans.

Wonderful work, Malike, and we look forward to seeing more!

Collectors: You can purchase Malike’s Mamiwata photos here.

Readers: Learn more about Your Art Gallery’s sponsorship of NYC Salt.