There are 200 on view at the National Museum of African Art--are not, it turns out, very different from our own.
Comparisons with Western symbols keep popping up in the course of decoding the objects in "African Emblems of Status," the provocative new show, which is the fourth in a series of theme exhibitions at the museum, all organized to give insight into a value system many Americans still don't understand. We have our Mercedes and minks; they have their ancestral chairs and leopard skins.
Included in the show are personal altars (where one prays to achieve), household implements, costumes and other symbolic regalia. Dating from the turn of the century or later, half of the objects were borrowed from other institutions. Most are not masterpieces, but all illustrate a way of life that is not as alien as we might have thought.
Forms vary, of course. A Mossi woman coming of age in Ghana will be presented with a carved stone bracelet, not a gold watch; a Ndebele bride from southern Africa is more likely to receive a beaded apron than a wedding ring from her groom.
But a large photograph showing an elaborately dressed chief, being held aloft by bearers -- and shielded by a giant silk umbrella (a real one is in the show) -- is bound to recall Prince Charles in a royal carriage, decked out for his wedding day, or a presidential limousine with sirens ablare and fender flags aflutter.
Though modes of transportation may differ, they all have the same goal: to make the rank of their passengers highly visible in ways easily read by those who know the culture.
The show has been handsomely installed on two floors, the lower appropriately devoted to status symbols achieved by hard work, the upper to those acquired by wealth or inheritance. Evidence of African meritocracies came as a surprise to early explorers; many of them lacked similar opportunities for advancement at home. Some of these objects are equally surprising today, such as the magnificent, crested raffia hat used to reward champion forest clearers, the wooden staff with carved birds given to champion farmers or the wooden rice ladles presented to women who excelled as community hostesses. They put today's tin trophies to shame.
Architecture in Africa, as elsewhere, is a major way of expressing wealth and prestige, and an entire gallery has been devoted to reproducing the interior courtyard of a wealthy Yoruba atrium house with a sloping, corrugated roof designed to funnel rainwater into collecting barrels. In all such Nigerian residences, art is inevitably commissioned by the owner, and several supporting posts and doors -- carved by artists of varying ability -- have been installed to make the point.
A pair of wooden doors dating from the 1940s amusingly suggests the intrusion of Western culture: several panels depict a man, flanked by attendants and laden with other symbols of rank, astride not a horse, but a motorcycle.
As might be expected, the more lavish accouterments of rank -- splendid fringed, beaded crowns, an array of wonderful hats, strip-woven and re-embroidered garments -- belong to the royals and other heirs to wealth whose regalia is on view upstairs. Also displayed are various forms of currency that made it all possible: gold dust, cowrie shells, metal objects and a roll of narrow, hand-woven "country cloth."
The show ends with the stools and chairs that have always been traditional symbols of African prestige. Alumni chairs could be read as the American counterpart.
Appropriately, the museum's own status seems to have gone up since it became part of the Smithsonian three years ago -- or so it would seem from the striking installation, the museum's most elaborate and expensive to date. The salesroom, featuring an array of African arts, crafts and books on African art, also has been handsomely expanded under the new management of the Smithsonian Museum Shops. Other renovations appropriately include two grand old American status symbols -- new signs on the door and new carpeting on the floor.
"African Emblems of Status" was organized by gallery curators Roslyn Walker and Edward Lifschitz, and will continue through April 3. Lifschitz will lecture on the show Sunday afternoon at 2, and tours are available on a walk-in basis from 12:30 to 4 weekends. A free, 20-page guide to the exhibition is available at the museum, which is behind the Supreme Court at 318 A St. NE. Hours are Mondays through Fridays 10 to 5, weekends noon to 5.