Movers and shakers the world over know who they are. To let everyone else know, they invented status symbols.
"African Emblems of Status," the National Museum of African Art's show of 205 objects, covers the right stuff -- real estate to wedding gifts, prestige sandals to smoking paraphernalia -- from 40 different cultures in 14 African nations. The elaborate designs and precious materials show that rewards for over-achievers can be beautiful achievements in themselves.
Emblems of rank don't have to be functional; as adornments they're meant to make a statement. Robes with twice the necessary material cause their wearers to constantly pull up the sleeves and folds. But they are sometimes flecked with silk or tinsel and their volume speaks volumes. Women's anklets of hammered brass plates couldn't have been designed with comfort in mind, but are worn for life as signs of wifely devotion. Hats of beads, feathers and shells make the ordinary appear special. Sometimes the mere presence of a head covering signifies status: Hats of woven raffia palm fibers designate champion forest-clearers.
Woman's status as mother and wife is relayed through many symbols: Amulets are said to help them conceive. Small wooden figures tucked inside a woman's wrap at the small of the back signals her concern with procreation. Young Dan women in Liberia dance before the community holding pint- size "grandfather" chairs symbolic of their new knowledge and their eminently marriageable state. And the female's role as hostess is indicated in ceremonial rice ladles carved in the shape of a woman with a spoon head.
Addresses tell who's who, much as in America. Status is reflected in the location, size and condition of an African's house. The exhibit recreates a classy Nigerian courtyard designed to collect water at its corners, with carved posts and doors illustrating prestige architecture. Even the zinc roofing is a power symbol, a cut above thatching.
Ceremonial swords and umbrellas, intricately carved staffs and axes, beaded crowns and a range of headgear are more than stylish, more than artful. They're emblematic.
AFRICAN EMBLEMS OF STATUS -- At the National Museum of African Art, through April 3. Walk-in tours are available on weekends, 12:30 to 4. Lectures, performances, gallery talks and films complement the show.