In 1867, just two years after her arrival in Rome to join the colony of American sculptors there, Edmonia Lewis conceived the marble statue that today remains the most famous work ever created by a black American woman artist: "Forever Free," a symbolic, sentimental depiction of male and female slaves after emancipation.

In 1978, Washington artist Winifred Owens created her extraordinary Janus-headed ceramic sculpture, "Initiations: African American," a half-length, nude female figure whose one side is African with tribal scarifications and whose other is American with contemporary cosmetics. The moving look on both of her faces is hard to describe, a cross, perhaps, between wonderment and affirmation.

The distance in time, psychology and style between these two works sets the tone for the exhibition "Forever Free: Art by Afro-American Women, 1862-1980," which opened yesterday in the art gallery of the University of Maryland in College Park.

Lewis' work was unusual in its time for its topical subject, and yet in all respects its style accords with the sleek neoclassical conventions of what Henry James called the "white marmorean flock" of "American 'lady sculptors' " who had settled in Rome. The artist's mother was a Chippewa Indian, and her father a free black man and, she said, "a gentleman's servant." The fact that she became an artist at all is extraordinary, but she went just so far in confronting the ambiguous issues of racial identity in her work. The features of the figures in "Forever Free" are plainly Caucasian.

Owens, born 32 years ago in Washington, belongs to a generation of black women artists to which the complex questions of race and existence are daily bread. Even if her direct confrontation of the issue of sexual identity is somewhat unusual in this show, Owens' work epitomizes the basic themes of the exhibition. As she has written, "My visual statements speak of what is, what was and what (I think) should be . . . for women of color."

The history sketched in this show is predictably parallel to the history of black American art generally. The intense struggles to achieve an art that is at once personal, racial and universal have been the same for women and men. There is, however, one major, puzzling difference. This is the fact that black women artists, with but few exceptions, seemed to have excelled in sculpture rather than painting.

It may be, as Keith Morrison suggests in the catalogue, that this has to do with a long if unspoken tradition "of searching for African or Afro-American forms through the object rather than through pictorial illusion," but he doesn't explain why this would be more true of women than of men, so it remains an astonishing fact. Most of the best work in this show is in some way three-dimensional; most of the worst, and it can get pretty bad, is flat. (The main exceptions to the surprising rule are fairly well known: painters Laura Wheeler Waring, Lois Mailou Jones, Sylvia Snowden and Alma Thomas. The four paintings in the show by Jones constitute a mini-mini-restrospective, from "Rue Saint Michel" of 1938, to "Ubi Girl From Tai Region" of 1972.)

Lewis begins the story. Her successor was Meta Vaux Fuller, whose bronze 1914 sculpture, "Ethiopia Awakening," is another small step in the direction of articulating a distinctively Afro-American cultural point of view. Nancy Elizabeth Prophet was one of a number of sculptors to emerge during the Depression; her carved wooden bust of 1930, "Congolaise," beautifully combines idealization and realism. Elizabeth Catlett, born in Washington in 1919, came along a bit later. Her small terra-cotta figure, "Tired," belies its size in the astute simplifications of form she absorbed from Mexico and from Africa.

Owens is but one of many in a new generation of artists who continue this theme. Faith Ringgold, born in 1930, falters when she applies brush to canvas but, working in three dimensions and with "soft" materials, she turns a cliche' into brilliant satire with figures that are persuasively alive. Barbara Chase-Riboud, born in 1939, makes forceful connections between soft and hard materials, past and present attitudes and African and American sources in her weighty, black, abstract sculptures. Maren Hassinger, born in 1947, transforms the esthetics of the international avant-garde into something personal and hauntingly Afro-American in her piece, "Walking," made with nerve-jangling bundles of cable bunched, like simple brooms, with wire.

This traveling show is tremendously uneven, but the best work in it would hold its own in exhibitions organized by less limiting principles -- in a show of black American art, for instance, or, simply, American art. This lesson makes the show worth doing and worth seeing. The show was organized by Jacqueline Fonvielle-Bontemps for Illinois State University. It continues through Dec. 3.