IT'S HARD to think what to think about the Museum of African Art's exhibition on the paramount chiefs of Sierra Leone.

The 48 photographs by Vera Viditz-Ward are compelling portraits of the men and women who occupy the West African nation's many chiefdoms. They look wise and shrewd and warm and strong; they carry themselves with great dignity, befitting the ancient traditions they embody.

Their faces are wonderfully African and yet intimately familiar, because many of these chiefs' kinship lines have American branches. Each of these personages is distinctive and memorable, in spite of the deliberate formality of the poses.

Yet one's attention is repeatedly distracted by the symbols of authority, proudly displayed although they evoke colonial days. Many of the chiefs are seated on wooden thrones presented by Queen Elizabeth II in 1961, when Sierra Leone had Commonwealth status. Most hold cane staffs whose brass finials bear the British coat of arms, issued to their predecessors by district officers when the area's historic kingdoms were subordinated into chiefdoms, amounting to colonial administrative sub-districts; in effect the "paramount chiefs" became tribal counselors.

And pictured behind many of the chiefs is a police officer representing the now overarching power of the sovereign nation of Sierra Leone ("Lion Mountains"). If there is majesty in the chiefs' bearing, there is also melancholy: Their ancestors were kings.

All of which makes for a powerful show. Viditz-Ward, impressed by several chiefs she met while free-lancing in Sierra Leone, decided to try to photograph them all. After many hours traveling by motorcycle through many miles of bush, she came back with portraits of about a third of them. Here's hoping she goes back for the rest.

PARAMOUNT CHIEFS OF SIERRA LEONE -- Through Sept. 2 at the National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave. SW. 202/357-2700 (TDD: 202/357-4814). Open 10 to 5:30 daily. Metro: Smithsonian, Mall exit.