THE HUMAN figures in "Bamana Figurative Sculpture" at the Museum of African Art are strikingly similar, whether of recent vintage or 500 years old.

In central Mali near the west coast of Africa, sculptures like the 45 on display here have been used for centuries by the Jo initiation society -- a religious, political and social organization. Sitting or standing tall, with high-crested coiffures and solemn faces, the bold, almost abstract figures demonstrate ideal characteristics to the Bamana people.

They exemplify the Bamana concept of beauty. Shapely statues of women in their prime, albeit somewhat exaggerated, are carried about by young men as a trapping of their Jo initiation celebration, along with costumes, masks, dance and music.

Other sculptures, of revered personages and their minions, are brought out in groups on the anniversary of Jo, or at rituals of the Gwan fertility cult. Taken from their usual shrines, they are oiled and decorated for the occasion.

In the ceremonial displays, there is always the figure of a mother and her child, and a similar male figure. These are powerful personages. Companion figures demonstrate just how the public should behave towards them. While there are warriors to defend them, there are mainly figures who show submission to them -- male figures with the head turned to the side, which would be the way to greet an important person, and female figures who lift their breasts in the Bamana gesture of honor, or carry water vessels symbolic of duty to husband and family.

This is the last show at the museum's current location, before it closes for a year, to reopen in new quarters being built on the Mall.

THE HUMAN IDEAL IN AFRICAN ART/BAMANA FIGURATIVE SCULPTURE -- At the Museum of African Art, 318 A Street NE, through June 15.