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Nollywood and the Evolution of the Sacred Feminine

Nollywood and the Evolution of the Sacred Feminine

Nollywood and the Evolution of the Sacred Feminine - Mami Wata - Afrocritik

There is a sense, thus, in which God may be perceived as the ultimate metaphysical conception of the masculine ideal expressed in various mythologies. And if that is the case, then might there not equally be a final metaphysical conception of the feminine ideal?

By Victory Hayzard Solum

When the American Popstar, Ariana Grande, released the single, “God is a Woman”, back in 2018, it was met with overwhelming critical acclaim along with feminist adulations, not just for its sonic appeal, but for its themes elevating the female essence. Its music video featured reworkings of world-famous art pieces like Georgia O’Keeffe’s Grey Lines with Black, Blue and Yellow, and Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. However, when one considers the fact that God is perceived as a supernatural being, one above and beyond the natural realm and all its properties, one might wonder why such a statement as Grande makes needs to be made or celebrated at all.

It is a fact that the language of the dominant Western traditions conceive of God in the masculine. It is an almost preset format to speak of God as the Father, an idea that has since given rise to the imagery, disparagingly or otherwise, of the “Old Man in the Sky”. With much of the gendered narrative in these cultures seeing women play second fiddle to men, with expectations of submissiveness belying their every endeavour, this image of a cosmic masculine overlord has since led to some friction in the world with the rise of feminism and the struggle against patriarchal structures of oppression. One particularly dramatic image from Grande’s music video turns this idea on its head, by depicting herself as a giant overlooking a group of angry men in protest.

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Still from Ariana Grande’s “God is a Woman”

There is a sense, thus, in which God may be perceived as the ultimate metaphysical conception of the masculine ideal expressed in various mythologies. And if that is the case, then might there not equally be a final metaphysical conception of the feminine ideal? We shall call this ideal the Sacred Feminine, or the feminine divine.

According to The World Factbook by the CIA, over 98% of the Nigerian population is roughly divided between the Muslim and Christian religions. Both of these religions are decidedly monotheistic and patriarchal. What that means is there is very little space for feminine depictions of the divine. While the Catholic faith does allow for a conception of the woman as The Mother of God, the majority of Nigerian Christians are Protestant or Pentecostal by denomination, and have very little use for this idea. The Muslim faith in a rejection of this concept says quite simply that Allah neither begot anyone nor is he begotten.

With this lack of a Heavenly Queen, there is, however, one significant and perhaps most noteworthy position that is accorded the woman in these religions without fail. This is the role of Eve, the woman who, deceived by the serpent, leads to the downfall of man. As life informs art and vice versa, Nollywood has thus had a tenuous relationship with the idea of the feminine divine. And for much of her film history, the superpowered female, when she popped up in Nollywood metaphysics, did so under a negative limelight, unless set in the ancient past and time of legend when indigenous powers ran amok.

Our first brush with her comes in the 1994 Zeb Ejiro-directed movie, Nneka the Pretty Serpent, starring Ndidi Obi. In a strange conflation of identities, no longer is she the woman deceived by the serpent: she is the serpentine deceiver herself. In the film, the titular Nneka gains her powers through alliances with fetish priests and the devil. But whatever powers she acquires, they seem to serve no purpose other than to bring about the moral, spiritual, and financial ruination of the man in her life. The Nneka archetype would go on to be replicated in more movies like Karashika, Suicide Mission, Scores to Settle, and Highway to the Grave. Beautiful, confident, sexually liberated, and light-skinned, the notion seemed to be that the powerful woman existed to destroy or undermine the man, thus betraying anxieties of impotence which were stated in no clearer terms than when the character goes on the rampage in Scores to Settle, slicing off phalluses with wanton glee.

The Sacred Feminine and the feminine divine - Nneka the Pretty Serpent - Afrocritik
Poster for the 1994 Nneka the Pretty Serpent

The character had all the physical appearance of the “society-woman” or “city girl”. She was better educated than most, understood the intricacies of business, knew high fashion, and stayed up to date with the happenings of society: just the sort of woman these men could lose their rationality to. Her very qualities granted her access to the highest echelons of society, but her loyalty was first and foremost to herself in the cutthroat world of city dwelling. There is a reason, thus, that Nneka often latched on to a wealthier man once she was done destroying her lover.

When one considers the fact that this was a period of military dictatorship and one of great economic uncertainty, with the subsequent rise of Pentecostalism and increase in religious fervour, is it any wonder that these men, with their masculine standing all so bruised and brutalised, saw in their disloyal and overly comfortable paramours the very features of the demon deceiver from Hell? Did they dare blame anyone else for their misfortunes?

As the New Millennium rolled over in the 2000s, however, affirming the end of the military dictatorship, it brought along with it the sense that a man could somehow forge his own destiny against all odds, however he deemed fit. With much of the old anxieties flung out of focus, Nollywood movies seemed to display less and less of the Nneka character. This is not to say, however, that the image of the feminine divine was fully dissipated, or that it now enjoyed a more charitable position. No. Not so easily discountenanced, the superpowered female saw a new transformation, albeit one that was perhaps for the worse.

The 2003 Afam Okereke movie, Billionaires’s Club may have borrowed its premise from the 1992 Kenneth Nnebue produced and Chris Obi Rapu directed movie Living in Bondage, but it upgraded it with Millennium-style opulence and a new slew of stars who would go on to reappear in three sequels and other similar styled movies, breeding a bunch of clones in the process. The premise was simple; a down-on-his-luck poverty-stricken man reconnects with his affluent friend who entices him to join his secret cult where wealth flows in abundance. But for that, he will have to sacrifice those closest to him in a blood ritual. It is at this point that the female divine makes her entrance.

Zed, played by Tony Umez, hands his sick infant over to an ugly-looking witch of a woman. She places said child inside a mortar and proceeds to pound it, screams and all, into a pulp, in what is perhaps one of the most horrifying scenes out of the Old Nollywood movies. This new ugly-looking version of the feminine divine finds expression also in Nwayi Asaba, as played by Camilla Mberekpe, whose ginormous breasts or “ara Nwayi Asaba” must be suckled if one is to be granted wealth beyond measure, in the 2006 MacCollins Chidebe film, Across the River.

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Across the River film poster

Now, it is to be noted that with this new iteration, the masculine relationship with the feminine divine is not exactly adversarial, but transactional in nature. If one does precisely as she asks, then all will be well with one, albeit for a price. She is just an alternate means to power with whom one could form an alliance. However, if one understands the conception of God as the Father, then from the breastfeeding act of Nwayi Asaba, perhaps the divine feminine has been installed in her position as the Mother. But if one also considers the aphorism, “God’s time is the best” as one of Nigeria’s favourites, then one begins to see that this access of material blessings through the Mother might be considered illicit and an upturning of the natural order of things. Is it any wonder, then, that she is made to pound a screaming child to death?

This is not to say that she was the sole power in operation of this trade. As with the earlier trend, this was an era of clones and copycat movies, but there was a multiplicity of spirits, gods, and forces granting the chance at illicit wealth and a host of other offerings. However, whenever the feminine divine appeared, it was most often in this type of depiction. And that would not change for over a decade and half.

The 2010s saw a lot of sociocultural shifts in Nigeria, one of them being an increase in female representation in the film industry. With more and more women taking on the roles of screenwriters and directors, it meant that even more stories could be told from a feminine perspective where before, the point-of-view was decidedly male-centric. But perhaps, the changes could not have been more impactful without feminism as a driving force. With feminism, women could now give voice to the hurts and heartaches they had suffered at the hands of men and the patriarchy. And this too influenced the manifestation of the Sacred Feminine.

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In Daniel Oriahi’s 2018 supernatural thriller, Sylvia, written by Vanessa Kanu, the titular character, played by Zainab Balogun, is an imaginary friend who has grown up with Richard Okezie, played by Chris Attoh, with thoughts and promises of love eternal. But when Richard abandons her for the love of a real-life woman, Sylvia must use whatever powers are at her disposal to avenge her broken heart on the man who has taken and taken but given nothing in return.

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Still from Sylvia

A similar trope plays out in Play Network’s 2020 remake of Nneka the Pretty Serpent, directed by Tosin Igho, and written by Adia Uyouyou. Here, a cult of mostly men breaks into her family home on the night of her mother’s thirty-second birthday, and kills both her parents. Now, as an adult, she must hunt down these people and destroy them for the hurt they have caused her, restoring her birthright as a powerful and supernatural queen.

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Nneka the Pretty Serpent remake

The Sacred Feminine here returns to a beautiful and appealing appearance. Less is the emphasis on benefits or misfortunes accruing to men on the basis of their relationship with her, but more on the complexities of her personality. It is particularly telling that Play Network’s Nneka the Pretty Serpent retcons the character originally at the heart of the former demonic portrayals. Except now, whatever acts of destruction she wreaks on the world, they are simply to be understood as the work of a victim on the path of vengeance, and one desperately in need of love and appeasement.

It is possible that with the release of C. J. ‘Fiery’ Obasi‘s Mami Wata, however, we may have entered a new era in the understanding and depiction of the feminine divine. Here, for the first time, we seem to encounter hints of a theological discourse on the Sacred Feminine; is the Goddess real? If she is, where are her works? Throughout the movie, a village is beset by crises hinged on the demand that the Goddess prove herself. But this time, with a calm assurance of herself, it is the Goddess whose time is best, who makes the simple demand that the people have faith, and who will not be drawn into trifling games of working miraculous wonders. Perhaps when the time finally is right, when the people have shown true resilience and belief, she might reveal herself in all her glory and majesty; God, indeed, is a Woman.

Mami Wata (2023) | Dir. C.J. “Fiery” Obasi
Still from Mami Wata | Musee Magazine

In contrast to the patriarchal nature of the monotheist Abrahamic religions, the indigenous and polytheist religions of the Nigerian people have always conceived of God in the female essence. The Sacred Feminine sees manifestation in fertility deities like Ani of the Igbo Odinani cosmology, and the wild, confluent essences of river deities like Osun and Oya in the Yoruba Ifa cosmology. These are ideas along with other divinities which were challenged, distorted, and all but uprooted by colonialism and Nigeria’s brush with other religions. Why does Nwayi Asaba bear the same buxom qualities as old-time depictions of Ani? Perhaps because one is a vilifying caricature of the other. Why have the mermaid essences of Yemoja and her kin been collapsed into the monolith of Mami Wata requiring the pleadings of Victor Uwaifo’s “Guitar Boy” for people not to run from her? Your guess is as good as mine.

There is no gainsaying the fact that the Old Nollywood movies of the ’90s and 2000s are steeped in a Christian purview. With the rise of New Nollywood, beginning with Kunle Afolayan‘s 2009 thriller, The Figurine, however, the industry saw a shift towards a more secular cosmology, albeit one that has begun to tilt towards a celebration of indigenous conceptions of spirituality and the universe. It is no surprise then that movies such as Mami Wata are being made and that they are enjoying the successes that they currently are. Still, it is possible, too, that my optimism is a little premature.

In a time when demands have been made for more cinematic adaptations of figures like Sango, Ogun, and Amadioha/Kamalu, especially with the popularity of Thor and the Marvel franchise in new age manifestations of the masculine divine, the Mami Wata crew was all but ostracised in their making of the film by otherwise business minded people, out of fear of being associated with the deity. Perhaps there still is much unease about the concept of the female essence in power. Perhaps it is a race issue too. With popular depictions of a Caucasian Mother of God, perhaps the world was somewhat ready to accept the claims coming from Ariana Grande, when just the year before, many were all up in arms and pitchforks at the sight of black women in similar postures. This may be the one situation, thus, where art may be required to reshape the attitudes of the people towards its subject. Suffice it to say, however, that with the proven durability of the Sacred Feminine, whatever her manifestations going forward, the Goddess is here with us, and she is not going anywhere anytime soon.

Victory Hayzard Solum is a freelance writer with an irrepressible passion for the cinematic arts. Here he explores the sights, sounds, and magic of the shadow-making medium and their enrichment of the human experience. A longstanding ghostwriter, he may have authored the last bestselling novel you read.

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