Don't try to see "The Stranger Among Us" at the National Museum of African Art during lunch hour, because you'll wind up back at the office late, hungry and in trouble.
The exhibit is of such depth and power it takes at least a couple of visits to take it all in, and after that you must go upstairs to see "Thinking With Animals," a major and excellent exhibit that's all but overshadowed by the lingering images from downstairs.
"Strangers" holds 173 masks, carvings, castings and clay works depicting native artists' impressions and interpretations of other tribes and of European and Asian traders, slavers and conquerors. Some are symbolic but most are caricatures as perceptive and deadly accurate as Thomas Nast on Boss Tweed. Where there was no written language the objects supplement oral hstory; and they will tell any white person all he or she needs to know about what underlies African nationalism.
Here is a colonial officer carved by someone in Togo-Ghana. He is firm but uncertain; he is cruel but weak; he is arrogant but afraid; and he is unmistakably, almost unspeakably, French.
There, from Nigeria, broad sash of decorations slewed across his chest, stands Colonel Blimp to the bloomin' life: He can almost speak, and we know it to be a blessing that he cannot.
Yonder, from Zaire, is their Belgian counterpart, and if you were not previously aware of how viciously the Belgian Congo was administered, you know now.
The content of the carvings is so potent one must come again to see the artistic quality that so riveted and remolded Picasso. No such difficulty stands in the way of several examples of crucifixes, carved by men moved not by Christianity but by line and form and texture. Unhindered by European conventions, they took the representation of the crucified man simply to heart, and so take our hearts.
"Thinking With Animals," because in contrast it is Africa turned inward, is harder to see but nearly as rewarding. Like "Strangers" the exhibits are well captioned as far as the self-imposed text-length limits permit, but one wishes modern museum designers would adopt the old newspaper "pyramid" style, so that those in a hurry could get the gist from the first few lines and the rest of us could study a text block that would go on as long as necessary.
Take a turn through "Strangers" without reading the captions the first time, just absorbing the forms as form, the imagery of artists who know their animals.
Hie yourself off to the Hill; this is one of the few Washington museums the tourists don't seem to know about.
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AFRICAN ART -- 318 A Street NE. Open weekdays 10 to 5, weekends noon to 5.