Mermaids and Merwomen in Black Folklore
Avery Research Center
125 Bull St.
Cookie Washington has imagined what life might be like as a water goddess, ruling the seas and the hearts of men. She describes her new quilt and doll exhibition at the Avery as her “baby,” seven or eight years in the making.
Initially, it was hard to find a venue for her vision, and she didn’t get support for the idea of fiber art inspired by black mermaids. But when she approached Georgette Mayo, Avery’s interim head, she got a glowing reception. Once Washington explained that the first mer-stories were brought over here by African slaves, Mayo knew the Avery had to host the show.
Aided by Catherine Lamkin, Washington published a call for entries in two national magazines. The specs: fiber art featuring black mermaids. Work flooded in from New York, Illinois, California, and other far-flung states.
Washington is constantly astounded that blacks don’t know their heritage.
“African-American women don’t honor ourselves enough,” she says. “I don’t mean we should have beauty pageants every day, but we haven’t seen ourselves in art, history, or painting.” When she came across stories of black mermaids she thought, “These trace back to black goddesses. People worshiped them. They were strong. They could cause storms and bring fertility. They could be benevolent and bless your fishing harvest. I wanted little girls to see these amazing spirit beings.”