IN AFRICA, "praise poems" are often sung to heroes and gods, and "Praise Poems" at the Museum of African Art is a paean to the late collector Katherine White.
In the exhibit are just a few of the African masks and figures she acquired and later bequeathed to the Seattle Art Museum. There are 50 objects in "Praise Poems" -- but they seem like so much more.
The pieces are large, and spread out to fill the museum. They present powerful images, sometimes scary, always seeping with mystery. Their visceral messages are clear: The viewer may feel a shiver at the back of the neck and be grateful for company in the room. Their various symbolisms are often obscure, for the scholars to puzzle over.
Among the finely carved wooden figures is a Nigerian mother whose cleft headdress shows she worships the thunder god Shango. She carries a child on her back and sits on a mudfish. She is exquisite -- and her irresistible charm has worn away her features. Hands caressing her since she was made in the 19th century have polished her forehead, shoulders, breasts and knees.
The oldest object comes from the 16th century -- an ivory leopard face that was used as a clasp to secure a king's skirts.
Masks make up almost half the exhibit. Some weigh 50 pounds, worn by dancers who may have been charged to dance well -- or cause a poor harvest.
Ironically, the most frightening masks in the show are actually beneficial, and a source of comfort -- to those with the mask on their side.
On a mask from this century, a sinister melange of teeth and antelope horns, feathers and black hair defines the facial features. With "eyes" hidden deep in shadows, it is a fright. But, before it traveled to this country, it was probably worn in response to unexplained disasters or social unrest in an Ivory Coast village. It showed up to help, its wearer dancing to solve the village's problem.
A fearful "were-crocodile" from Cameroon embodies beauty and the beast. Braids like ram's horns -- a woman's hairstyle -- surround the head of the uncompromising carnivore. The mask was probably used for something as harmless as a coming-of-age ceremony.
Another charmer represents the ravaged face of a person at an advanced stage of a disease caused by a vitamin deficiency. The wearer of this mask with disfigured nose and chin might act as a sort of policeman.
And then there's Basinjom, a 10-foot-tall crocodile man eating a hot dog. (Actually, he's chomping on an enormous seed case.) A blue war-bird feather headdress atop his mask gives him strength. His mirrored eyes enable him to read minds. His crocodile snout makes him a fierce hunter: A cat skin dangling from his robe gives him credibility. Basinjom wants to do away with selfishness and deceit, and he may appear at any time -- looking like a combination of Mr. T and Big Bird.
PRAISE POEMS: THE KATHERINE WHITE COLLECTION -- At the Museum of African Art through February 24, 1985.