Few ancient cultures have managed to translate their traditional art forms into fresh 20th-century idioms. But the "Contemporary Art of Senegal," which opens today at the Corcoran, shows that Senegal had managed to do precisely that.

Dramatically installed in the Corcoran atrium amid spotlights and potted greens, this exhibition includes 75 works -- paintings, drawings, prints, sculpture and several large and stunning tapestries -- which dominate the show.

Most were created by artists who came to maturity after 1960, when Senegal won its independence from France. If stylistic independence from the French has not yet been achieved, the artists have given it a good try. Several works inevitably call up memories of Picasso. But Picasso, after all, learned abstraction from African art.

Unlike most of its West African neighbors. Senegai no longer had a continuous tradition in the plastic arts when independence came. With colonization had come Christianity -- which destroyed (or dispersed to European and American museums) the masks and statues of animist gods and ancestors. Under Islam, carved images were forbidden by the Koran.

Thus, when Senegal's poet-president, Leopold Senghor, undertook to rouse what he calls the "collective black unconscious" through the arts, he was -- stylistically, at least -- beginning anew. A national school of art was established, along with a tapestry workshop in Thies.According to Warren Robbins, director of the Museum of African Art, Senegal is now at the forefront of contemporary developments in the visual arts in Africa.

But if Senegal had lost its visual arts heritage, a strong oral tradition remained, and the subject matter here comes straight out of the mythology and history of the distant past. Islamic elements enter in -- but even in the most abstract of these highly patterned, decorative, flattened forms, the titles reveal specific sources in the lives and ancient memories of the people.

Painting techniques here range from the popular art of "reverse" painting on glass -- brightly colored works depicting urban life, mostly made by untutored artists -- to a comlex, multi-media work using gesso and sand to depict the slaughtering of a lamb for an Islamic holiday. Younousse Seye, the only woman artist in the show, uses pasted-on-cowrie shells -- traditional symbols of fertility -- to define her swinging, interlocking lines in "Light Bearer."

It is the tapestries, however, which make the most striking contribution. Woven at Thies, where designs are passed upon by a committee which includes Senghor himself, these often epic works stand up against anything currently being turned out by Aubusson.

Again, they are based on traditional themes. One of the most spectacular is "Bamba and Lat Dior," including both sacred and secular aspects. Here, Bamba, a spiritual chief swathed in white robes, prepares to pray, while national hero Lat Dior, a king killed in the war against the French, sits astride a horse that seems to breathe fire. Lat Dior is a popular hero who turns up elsewhere in this show, notably in a Benin-like bronze of great charm.

Tapestries from Senegal have been shown here before, at the Museum of African Art during Senghor's 1968 visit to Washington. This show, with its broader scope, comes to Washington through the efforts of Mayor Marion Barry who, during his visit to Senegal last August, learned that the exhibition would be traveling to Mexico and Canada. With his help, support for an Anerican tour was solicited from J. E. Caldwell Co. and its parent company, the Dayton Hudson Corp. The show closes here April 6, and will then travel to Boston, Atlanta and New Orleans.

On Wednesday, Feb. 27, at 12:30 Warren Robbins will give a lecture on the exhibition at the Corcoran.