Myths of water spirits Exhibit explores 4,000 years of black folklore

Cover of catalogue for “Mermaids and Merwomen in Black Folklore: A Fiber Arts Exhibition,” now on display at the City Gallery at Waterfront Park.

Mist, mermaids and myth. A new exhibit called “Mermaids and Merwomen in Black Folklore: A Fiber Arts Exhibition” at the City Gallery at Waterfront Park promises to be eye-opening as it explores the myths of water spirits in black folklore.

It's a topic rarely visited by artists, but Torreah “Cookie” Washington has curated a show that is bringing in nationally recognized quilters, poets and dollmakers who have explored the myths that go back 4,000 years to West Africa.

The legend of the mermaid in Europe merged with these water spirits in Africa of the time because there was increasing contact between the continents. African water spirits evolved from a representation as half-human, half-creature to being popularly depicted as a half-fish, half-woman. Slaves brought with them the practice of worshipping the water spirits, and it still is preserved in the Yoruba Kingdom.

Today, new communities of color have re-established and revitalized African water-spirits in their art, says Washington. “Each piece is a storyteller, using color, texture, form and embellishment to express a narrative.”

Seventy artists will be represented in the show, which is on view — just look for the 5-foot, glow-in-the-dark mermaid on Prioleau Street — but will be celebrated in opening festivities starting Thursday. About 50 of the artists will be in town for the three-day event that includes a lecture called “Let's Talk Mermaids: High Chief & High Priest Nathaniel Styles” 6:30-8:30 p.m. Thursday in the recital hall at the Albert Simons Center for the Arts. Nathaniel Styles is a high priest in the Yoruba Kingdom.

At 6:30 p.m. Friday, there will be a world premiere of the film “Waterbody” by Bianca Spriggs at the Island Club on Sullivan's Island. In an urban fantasy steeped in magical realism, a lonely woman finds and adopts a sickly mermaid and nurses her back to health. In the process, the mermaid turns into a human and the woman turns into a mermaid. Spriggs is a local poet and filmmaker.

At 7 p.m., there will be Yemaya's Feast Day Ceremony/Celebration presided over by Styles and Prince Emmanuel Aderele, fire bringer. Guests will walk from the Fort Moultrie Visitor Center across the parking lot to “The Bench by the Side of the Road.” It is a chance to bring offerings of flowers, coins and small fruits as Styles educates guests about how to honor and celebrate the mermaid Yemaya.

On Saturday from 3-4 p.m., there will be a public show-and-tell for black quilters and doll artists at the Avery Center for African-American Research, 125 Bull St. downtown.

Then the opening reception for the artists will be 5-8 p.m. Saturday at the gallery, and guests will have a chance to talk with the artists about their inspirations and how their work evolved.

Finally, there is a Celebration of the Artists After Party 8:30-10 p.m. at the YWCA, 106 Coming St. Several of the invited poets will be reading their current work, and there will be a catered shrimp and grits dinner and music. The cost is $30.

“I think the show is important because I want to expose our community to fine art, not to African-American art,” Washington says. “When you label art by a category, it symbolizes that it is an other. This exhibition is full of fine art and fine craft by terrific artists.”

The public is invited to the events, but tickets to some events are limited. Contact Washington at cookiesews1960@gmail.com or 259-8108.

If you want to see more art, along with some historic buildings, there are two visual arts events you can hit. There is Art in the Evening at the Charleston City Market 7-10:30 p.m. Thursday. This is inside the renovated Building B, and the juried event will host works from local crafters and artists.

It's a great time to have some dinner, explore the historic Market and stroll down to the waterfront.

Or you can hit First Friday on Broad.

From 5-8 p.m. the first Friday of every month, 15 member galleries, boutiques and bodegas host this popular event, sponsored by the Broad Street Merchants Association. You can bet that some of the artists will have new works to exhibit after a summer at the beach, and you can stop off at the Blind Tiger or Jake's to have a drink.

Visit Charlestongalleryrow.com or call Stephanie Hamlet at 722-1944.

For those of us who love the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Gospel Choir and CSO Spiritual Ensemble, it is with eager interest that we hear both organizations have announced new artistic directors.

Dr. Isaiah R. McGee will head up the CSO Gospel Choir and David A. Richardson will head the CSO Spiritual Ensemble.

McGee takes over from Sandra Barnhardt, who served as the CSO Gospel Choir's Music Director since 2008. McGee was selected for his extensive experience in vocal performance and choral conducting and assumed his new role this summer.

Richardson has been chosen to continue the legacy of the CSO Spiritual Ensemble. He will expand on the ensemble's repertoire focusing on the “spiritual” but also connect the classical elements that African-American composers and arrangers have contributed to the folk, sacred and classical genres.

Both promise to build on a great legacy that these groups have established.

Reach Stephanie Harvin at 937-5557 or sharvin@postandcourier.com.