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Seattle Art Museum (SAM)

400 Men of African Descent

Photo: Susan A. Cole

400 Men of African Descent


Marita Dingus

American, born 1956

Marita Dingus recently said, "400 Men and 200 Women of African Descent are a Hail Mary, a visual prayer, if you repeat a phrase enough times it may fix a situation." The situation needing attention is the memory of a place that often causes profound psychological disturbance. While on a 1992 travel grant to attend a conference on black studies in Ghana, Marita was taken to Elmina Castle. There she toured the dungeons where Africans from the continent's interior were confined in small rooms waiting for ships that would carry them across the Atlantic. Appalled by the conditions and the consequences of these rooms, Dingus resolved to acknowledge her experience. For a year and a half, she made figures to pay respects to Africans who were treated "as a commodity for 300 years."
Cloth and mixed media
African Art Acquisition Fund
Photo: Susan A. Cole
Not currently on view

She pays her respects to a history of pain.

Vicki Halper, 2003

The Evolution of a Museum Purchase

Marita Dingus is no stranger to the Seattle Art Museum. In 1989, she began training there as an interpreter of African art and by 1991 was giving tours, which, she says, was "a dream come true." Since that time, she has devoted countless hours as a volunteer, leading young people and adults through the galleries.  While on a break from her work in Seattle, a visit to Ghana led her to create the 400 men and 200 women.  Several years later, she was asked to submit the men for an experimental exhibition in which museum visitors voted for a work for the museum to buy.  Eventually, 400 Men was elected as the most desirable purchase, and the piece was acquired in 1998. This acquisition was then paired with an installation of works about the life of one man, John Brown, whose life had been commemorated by Jacob Lawrence.

Voting for Art

A Passion for Possession: Visitors Buy African Art opened in 1997 with an unusual premise. Everyone who came could vote for how to spend $10,000 that had been raised by deaccessioning (selling) works from the museum's collection. Among the nine choices were an invitation for a collaborative art project with artist Fred Wilson, a Dogon Monkey Mask, apartheid prints by Rudzani Nemasetoni, a rickshaw driver's costume from South Africa and photographs by Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibe. Over the course of a year, visitors to the interactive exhibition voted to purchase 400 Men of African Descent. The work was honored with comments from visitors such as these:

"It seems, at first, funny and trivial. I overheard a young girl say something about Barbie dolls. But when you look closely and note that each of these is unmistakably male and when you read the explanation, the power of it and the tragedy of it strike you very strongly. Thanks for asking our opinions."

"To remember, to learn from the past, to honor those who lost their lives, to keep us from doing it again."

"Drew me the most. The incessant variety is fascinating and disturbing all at once."

"You will not find this everywhere. It's pulling teeth."
Installation photo, Passion for Possession, 1997
Photo: Paul Macapia

Visiting a Slave Castle

Elmina Castle, Ghana, 2005
Elmina Castle, Ghana, 2005
Elmina Castle, Ghana, 2005
Elmina Castle, Ghana, 2005
Elmina Castle, Ghana, 2005
Elmina Castle, Ghana, 2005
Elmina Castle, Ghana, 2005
Elmina Castle, Ghana, 2005
Elmina Castle, Ghana, 2005
Elmina Castle, Ghana, 2005
Elmina Castle, Ghana, 2005

Africa Possessed

The Life of John Brown No.1. John Brown, a man who had a fanatical belief that he was chosen by God to overthrow black slavery in America, 1941, Jacob Lawrence
The Life of John Brown No. 6. John Brown formed an organization among the colored people of the Adirondack woods to resist the capture of any fugitive slave, 1941, Jacob Lawrence
The Life of John Brown No. 11. John Brown took to guerilla warfare, 1941, Jacob Lawrence
The Life of John Brown No. 22. John Brown was found 'Guilty of treason and murder in the 1st degree' and was hanged in Charles Town, Virginia on December 2, 1859, 1941, Jacob Lawrence


Exhibition HistorySeattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Africa Possessed, July 9, 1998 - Jan. 1, 1999.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Africa in America, Dec. 18, 2004 - Jan. 1, 2006.

Tacoma, Washington, Museum of Glass/International Center for Contemporary Art, Marita Dingus, May 1 - Sept. 9, 2004.

Oslo, Norway, Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, A Doll's House, Sept. 5, 2002 - Jan. 1, 2003.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Our Blue Planet: Global Visions of Water, Mar. 18 - May 30, 2022.

Seattle Art Museum respectfully acknowledges that we are on Indigenous land, the traditional territories of the Coast Salish people. We honor our ongoing connection to these communities past, present, and future.

Learn more about Equity at SAM