"RIGHT this way, please.
"You are now looking at one of the wonders of the Post-Modern world, rivaling the Pyramids of earlier millennia. More than 90 percent of this temple was built below ground. Please note the two entrance pavilions in the so-called Victorian Garden. Engraved in stone on one is the name Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, and on the other, the National Museum of African Art.
"Somewhere inside, underground, the two buildings meet, in the way of neighboring universes. Plans indicate that the entire 360,000-square-foot complex was built around a linden tree. Apparently, trees were at a premium."
It could be the spiel of the tourguide of the future, in that day long distant when even museums have their museums.
In fact the new Smithsonian complex does feel a little like an archaeological site, an ancient tomb with hidden chambers (yes, it is easy to lose your bearings, climb up a staircase to find you have already been there, and know that you have missed something Very Important). Adding to this is the presence of water -- in each museum, a limpid pool at the bottom of a stunning staircase suspended under a skylight. And a slight oppressiveness that comes from being below ground and deprived of natural lighting. Some swear they can feel the subway rumbling. Others find it a comfort, something of an impenetrable shelter, except that there is nothing to eat.
But above all, the new Sackler and the improved and relocated Museum of African Art hold several kings' ransoms in buried treasure.
The gift of Asian art from the late Arthur M. Sackler consists of a thousand things -- a traditional oriental grouping, like thousand-year-old eggs, or a thousand pardons. The entire gift is on display and for purposes of the opening, has been arranged into four exhibitions.
Nothing can top the ancient bronze vessels for sheer power. In the exhibit, "In Praise of Ancestors: Ritual Objects from China," there's not just one magnificent bronze in a case, but 153 in all. So solid, like the sound of a gong. Revered like bearded sages. So seemingly immutable in their great age. The bronzes' beautiful green or blue patina comes from having been buried for thousands of years; they were only recently unearthed, by farmers.
The vessels' distinctive shapes indicate their uses -- food, water or wine. And the variation in their surface patterns is infinite as snowflakes: with the characteristic network of spirals called the "thunder pattern" or leiwen, as well as pictographs, and dragons, demons and owls.
The jade collection at the Sackler also goes back three thousand years, to the royal Shang tombs. The carvings still transfix with a magical power. We can only guess what some of the jades were used for. A horned animal's head may have adorned the tip of an archer's bow. Smoothly polished jade disks were used in ritual, or as bracelets, maybe both. The collection is so complete that every animal of the Chinese zodiac is represented in jade. And the zodiacal display asks the visitor the eternal question: What's your sign?
Given the difficulty inherent in jade carving, the intricacy of detail is phenomenal. A Han dynasty chimera has the typical lion's body, dragon's head and phoenix's wings. Flying on its back is a kneeling immortal who hangs on to its curling mane, and the chimera's chest is puffed out with a power that spans two thousand years.
Simple trays, plates and boxes are rarely so lovely as the carved lacquer ones in this collection. The lacquer art evolved to its highest level in China. Here is one, from the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279), unlike any other in this country. It is dense with layers of lacquer -- prepared from the sap of the lacquer tree, applied coat after colorful coat, then carved. The intricate lobes and crosses are mesmerizing, and a closer look reveals that the carver has deftly exposed the many colors of the underlying layers.
Much of the art here is anonymous. Not so the work of the Chinese painters, whose vocation ranked with calligraphy and poetry as one of the Three Perfections. Probably the most famous is Shitao, one of the Four Eminent Monk Painters. He was a prince from the imperial Ming dynasty, and when it fell to the Qing dynasty, he became a monk. The blooms here in his "Album of Flowers" are exquisitely done, lively lotuses and peonies and other significant seasonal flowers.
Three of the major shows focus on Chinese art. The fourth is "Nomads and Nobility: Art of the Near East." It dazzles with silver and gold. Outstanding are the rhytons, or ceremonial drinking vessels, with the head of a lion, a lynx, a bull, at the end of a horn shape. The cunning horned-beast rhyton from fourth-century Iran that serves as the Sackler's logo is much larger in life, and up close you can see the mystifying symbols that decorate it, such as the three-branched tree that may or may not stand for "good thoughts, good words, good deeds."
The opening of the Sackler and the Museum of African Art on the Mall is part of our continuing cultural reorientation. We're moving away from art history with a decided Western perspective, the gospel according to Europe, toward a more global view.
In the Museum of African Art, the carved wooden masks and fertility figures astonish with their freshness and emotional power. "African Art in the Cycle of Life" is a show of sculptural masterpieces borrowed for the opening. If the face is familiar it's because you've seen it before, or something like it, in art books -- or, in some cases, your nightmares. A fierce mask from the Wee peoples of Liberia and the Ivory Coast was fashioned in the 20th century from wood, teeth, horn, feathers, hair, cowrie shells, and suchlike. But the distorted features in its bloody face speak to something beyond time.
Among the tours de force here is a palace door carved in 1906 by the Yoruba sculptor Olowe of Ise. Its panels tell the story of a visit, in 1897, of a British colonial administrator, shown in one panel being carried on a litter by two porters. Behind each scene is a network of geometric patterns that make the relief stand out even more. The door has an interesting story behind it, as well. The king of Ikere in southwestern Nigeria lent it to a British exhibition. When the British Museum offered to buy it from him, he refused to sell. But he agreed to trade it for a British-made throne.
Now African Art's permanent collection has room to spread out, and the four other inaugural exhibits largely draw from that. There's a textile show that explores the traditions of strip-weaving, and another that focuses on items that are used every day, yet crafted with great care.
"Royal Benin Art" has been singled out for its own small exhibit, revealing the rituals and regalia of king and court, as well as astounding craftsmanship in brass casting that goes back seven centuries. In the Benin kingdom in what is now south-central Nigeria, the craft was controlled by the king: Anyone found casting brass without his permission would be executed. But the king wasn't as important as the kingship: The elegant commemorative heads here are stylized, generic, regal types. The eyes stare haughtily from beneath the ceremonially incised brows.
Many of the things exhibited here under the heading of permanent collection we never saw in the cramped townhouses on the Hill. The Museum was saving them for the opening. Many are quite simply one of a kind. A Bamen court figure from Cameroon, superhuman-size, with a baboonlike visage, is considered the only such free-standing figure; others like him were attached to a throne. He's a masterwork in wood, beads and metal. He puts his hand under his chin, a gesture which in some societies may mean insult, but here is a gesture of respect before a ruler.
That's a personal favorite. But this is just the smallest of samplings of what treasures await, underground. BURIED TREASURES ON THE MALL
The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the National Museum of African Art are open daily, except Christmas, 10 to 5:30. You'll find them in the quadrangle bounded by the Smithsonian Castle and Independence Avenue, the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arts and Industries Building. The Smithsonian station on Metro's Blue and Orange lines is a stone's throw away.
ARTHUR M. SACKLER GALLERY
Four major exhibitions and three smaller displays featuring Persian and Indian paintings and Asian sculpture.
IN PRAISE OF ANCESTORS: RITUAL OBJECTS FROM CHINA --
About 500 ancient jades and bronzes and earliest example of an illustrated Chinese text on silk.
MONSTERS, MYTHS & MINERALS --
126 depictions of animals, monsters in jade, display about zodiac.
PAVILIONS & IMMORTAL MOUNTAINS:
Chinese Decorative Art & Painting -- 120 paintings, pieces of furniture and works in lacquer, jade and ceramic.
NOMADS & NOBILITY: ART OF THE ANCIENT NEAR EAST --
124 artifacts in gold, silver, bronze, ceramic and ivory.
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AFRICAN ART
AFRICAN ART IN THE CYCLE OF LIFE --
90 masterpieces borrowed from public and private collections, through March 20, 1988.
PATTERNS OF LIFE: WEST AFRICAN STRIP-WEAVING TRADITIONS --
37 textiles, jointly acquired with the Natural History Museum, from the permanent collection.
ROYAL BENIN ART
in the Collection of the National Museum of African Art -- 21 objects from the traditional court art of the Benin Kingdom.
FROM THE PERMANENT COLLECTION --
More than a hundred works.
OBJECTS OF USE --
More than 80 works from permanent collection and public and private collections.