In Zaire the libation traditionally begins by pouring wine on the ground. Last night at the National Gallery of Art, Kaweta Milombe Sampassa, Zaire's minister of culture, altered that custom and suggested pouring the libation toast into ashtrays. As laughter etched the translations of his French directions, the 100 guests toasted Ronald Reagan's health, the rest of America, and the success of the first exhibition in America of Kongo funerary art.

Though the exhibit opened two weeks ago, last night was the first time all its creators could schedule a party. "The Four Moments of the Sun: Kongo Art in Two Worlds" is a stunning collection of mannequins, grave markers and statues from the Mboma Kongo area and their functional and spiritual connections to American customs.. "This establishes the Kongo as a major civilization of the whole goddamn planet. It will make it just as familiar as Britain," said the perpetually exuberant Robert Farris Thompson, the Yale scholar who helped organize the show. The idea was initiated by Frere Joseph Cornet, director of the national museum in Zaire, a diminutive man in a gray suit who whispered "wonderful" as he strolled past the images of rulers, mourners, executioners and healers.

In both direct and indirect ways, the Zairian officials hope the small collection will improve the country's image. "When people talk about our wealth, they think of raw materials -- our zinc, our cobalt and diamonds. We also think our art is a resource," said Sampassa. They also hope the cultural richness will help balance the often negative picture of Zairian economic mismanagement and political corruption. "The government is making a big effort. We have a stabilization plan with the International Monetary Fund and our exports are increasing," said Zairian Ambassador Kasongo Mutuale. "Where is there not corruption? We are making efforts with many things."

Among the American officials at the reception and sit-down dinner were Daniel Terra, ambassador-at-large for cultural affairs, Chester Crocker, assistant secretary of state for African Affairs, and Nicholas Murphy, director of the Office of Central African Affairs at the State Department. Crocker called Zaire "one of our most important allies. We are seeking to strengthen those relationships. Zaire is a major player." The Americans joined in a toast while the minister explained, and gallery director J. Carter Brown translated, that "when one gives material goods to another, one loses; when one gives spiritual goods, one enriches oneself."