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Object of the Week: Dancewand for Sango

2020 has unleashed epic storms—a pandemic hurricane, tornadoes of lost jobs, and whirlwinds of racism. Meanwhile, in the center of Seattle, a new monument has appeared, offering the vision of a goddess named Oya, who offers to make way for changes in 2021. 

Oya comes from a culture—the Yoruba of Nigeria—that has long seen storms as cultural texts. She is related to a kneeling woman at SAM who holds a bowl and supports two thunderbolts on her head. This woman is a devotee of Sango, a deity who resides in the skies as a champion of justice who hates liars, thieves, and wrongdoers; who claps thunder and throws lightning down to strike them.[1] Sango is tempestuous but can also be generous, and he may choose to send his explosive energy to women who care for children and others. In this sculpture at SAM, the devotee kneels to pay tribute to the earth as an omnipotent witness, remaining calm to balance Sango’s bolts, and was once carried by a priest or priestess in a sacred drama filled with a unique soundtrack. Sango employs thunder—the loudest sound that nature makes—and his powerful presence is evoked in a distinctive way. If you’ve never heard bata drumming, below is a clip recorded in Nigeria; the video takes you to a family of drummers who fill the air with the intensity of a storm with frenetic crescendos that boggle the mind and ignite the spirit. [2]   

Oya is Sango’s consort. Her winds clear the path of opposition, helping him remove any obstacles to change. You can feel her presence in playful winds, or in more dangerous tornadoes and hurricanes. This year, she has risen to public glory at 24th and Jackson, in Seattle’s Central District. A creative couple—Marita Dingus and Preston Hampton—gave her new form, inventing a swirling body of metal ribbons that suggest her windy demeanor, while her face of concentrated composure looks for places where she can sweep aside trauma and deceit to make way for healing. 

Here is the couple’s explanation of how Oya came into focus:

So, how can Oya help us at the end of 2020?  In Yorubaland, she is known to be fond of black-eyed peas. When Yoruba were forced to move to America, Cuba, and Brazil as slaves, they brought black-eyed peas, called ewa, with them. In a turn of language, ewa puns with wa, the essence of existence. Eating them in America was coded secret devotion. Today, it is understood that eating black-eyed peas at new years can bring good luck.[3]

You may join in Oya’s quest to stir up radical shifts of being in 2021. Cook some black-eyes peas and talk about what changes you’d like to see, then visit Oya, or stand in her winds, and send her your words of hope for new paths to be found. Goodbye, 2020—let Oya’s breeze of blessing and winds of transformation unfurl in the New Year. 

Pam McClusky, SAM Curator of African and Oceanic Art


[1] Babatunde Lawal is a Yoruba scholar whose work on Sango sculpture and explanations of the larger context for understanding Sango is highly recommended. Here is one talk by Professsor Lawal: Stellar Connections: Explorations in Cultural Astronomy – Pt. 4, Babatunde Lawal – YouTube
[2] Performance by Ayan Agalu, “May the spirit of drumming carry one aloft,” March 2017, Erin Osun, recorded by Andrew Frankel. 
[3] Franck Kuwonu, “Black-eyed peas: A taste of Africa in the AmericasUN | Africa Renewal, December 24, 2019.
Image: Dancewand for Sango, Nigerian, wood, 19 7/8 x 7 9/16 x 4 5/8 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 67.91. Winds of Change: We Are Still Here, 2020, Marita Dingus and Preston Hampton, Jackson Apartments, Seattle, Washington.

Object of the Week: 400 Men of African Descent

Seattle-based artist Marita Dingus has two works in the Seattle Art Museum’s collection: 400 Men of African Descent, acquired in 1998, and 200 Women of African Descent, acquired in 2009. Both were completed in 1997 as companion installations. These works are described as a “Hail Mary, a visual prayer” by the artist, where repetition serves as a spiritual act of catharsis (the pieces took over a year to complete) and a mode of reflection on the horrific conditions of slavery that became clear during a visit to West Africa.  

Dingus was inspired to create these works after visiting Elmina Castle, a Ghanaian fort where for two centuries enslaved Africans were held captive. She walked into rooms where 400 men and 200 women were held in dungeons of extreme confinement, with little light and almost no air. There, they spent their last days before the Middle Passage––a term that fails to capture the atrocities of the slave trade and the conditions of being shipped over the Atlantic. Upon her return, Dingus made a man or woman each day to mark this memory. Each becomes a new form of monument to honor the 200 women and 400 men held captive in Elmina Castle, the aggregate total of figures a powerful and haunting reminder of the conditions of chattel slavery.

As in Dingus’s larger sculptural practice, the miniature figures in 400 Men and 200 Women are comprised of discarded materials, in this case elements such as zipper pulls, Christmas light bulbs, and textile fragments. As articulated in Dingus’s artist statement, “My art draws upon relics from the African Diaspora. The discarded materials represent how people of African descent were used during the institution of slavery and colonialism then discarded, but who found ways to repurpose themselves and thrive in a hostile world.”[1]

400 Men of African Descent came into the museum through an unusual museum experiment.  In 1997, the installation was included in a unique exhibition in which museum visitors chose, via ballot, the acquisition of a work of art featured in the show. The options ranged from photographs and sculptures by contemporary African artists, to installations like this one by a  contemporary Black American artist.

Knowing that the Seattle community chose for this work to enter the collection is an important and, perhaps today, lesser-known element of the work’s history. More than twenty years later, 400 Men and 200 Women of African Descent continue to alert viewers to questions and ignite conversations about slavery, colonialism, and systemic racism. Hopefully, they might also be seen as an offering, an emblem of a community’s support for important dialogue and change.

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections & Provenance Associate


[1] Marita Dingus, Artist’s Statement, https://www.travergallery.com/artists/marita-dingus/
Image: 400 Men of African Descent, 1997, Marita Dingus, cloth and mixed media, African Art Acquisition Fund, 98.43 © Marita Dingus. 200 Women of African Descent, 1997, Marita Dingus, cloth and mixed media, Gift of the artist and Francine Seders Gallery, 2009.54 © Marita Dingus.