You can easily forget, at first glance, that "Claiming Art/Reclaiming Space: Post-Apartheid Art From South Africa" has anything to do with Africa, old or new. These paintings, mixed-media collages, sculptures, prints and videos by 21 artists now at the National Museum of African Art could have been made and shown yesterday in New York or London.

Actually, some were. The sophisticated animated films by William Kentridge, based on his own charcoal drawings, were just shown at New York's Museum of Modern Art, and one of his plays was recently performed at the Kennedy Center. And the richly textured mixed-media collages by Soweto-born Rudzani Nemasetoni, titled "Urban Testaments," were not only made in Brooklyn, they incorporate bits--pressed tin and such--from decrepit Harlem buildings. Several others among these artists live in England.

But all of them, wherever they live, make works that reveal profound connections to South African culture. The best of their works are subtle. Eight wall-hung sculptures by Jeremy Wafter, titled "African Forms," conjure traditional masks by purely abstract, formal means: through their surface textures and tall oval shapes. Made of darkly painted plaster that resembles aged wood, they bulge from the wall, each one covered with different incised or relief markings--lines, holes, lozenges. Some recall tribal facial scarification.

The pulse of tradition is almost audible in the celestial ponderings of Gavin Jantjes, whose large black painting of a nocturnal sky filled with flickering gold stars greets visitors at the entrance to this show. Within it, three androgynous outlined figures seem to wander lost in the vast universe around them--perhaps a metaphoric expression of anxieties about South Africa's future after apartheid. This work, along with several ink drawings by Jantjes, is from his highly original series titled "Zulu," meaning "sky" or "heavens." It mixes astronomy, astrology and mythology into a hauntingly poetic mix. The fact that Jantjes lives in Britain has not diminished his connection with his homeland.

Other works more directly confront the realities of black South African life, making clear that while the loathsome policies of apartheid officially ended in 1989, its scars remain deeply embedded in the nation's soul. Willie Bester, once imprisoned for "loitering," assembled a three-dimensional collage built from armored car parts, intended to recall the green police vehicles that terrorized black settlements. Johannes Phokela, who has lived and worked in London for years, created his bloodied, stitched-up canvas titled "Cuts" after a 1990 visit to his homeland. Only then did he realize how inured people had become to the scarred faces and beaten bodies of those who'd had been arrested.

Oddly, Kay Hassan--who remained in Johannesburg--has made the most upbeat (and largest) political painting here. "First Time Voters" depicts a crowd waiting in line to vote in the first post-apartheid democratic election. Adding a touch of wit to this otherwise dead-serious show, he's also made this billboard-size collage out of paper torn from a billboard.

White artists are represented, too. And their outrage at apartheid is generally less guarded. Sue Williamson, a white South African reporter-turned-artist, is represented here by an unforgettable series of photographic assemblages in which she transforms original newspaper photographs and press reports of the recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings into ghostlike transparencies printed on acetate and strung out as if on a clothesline. One of them, "DeKock Ready to Sing," recalls the testimony of police commander Eugene de Kock who, in the hope of achieving reconciliation, admitted to exploding a pig's head in a test run for a car bomb he later used to kill human rights lawyer Bheki Mlangeni. Another piece tells the story of Sipho Mtimkulu, who was fed rat poison in prison after being arrested for distributing pamphlets. After his release, he recovered, only to disappear soon thereafter, apparently for good. These poignant pictorial documents represent transitory evidence, here artfully transformed into testimony for the ages.

It should be pointed out that during apartheid, segregated schools greatly limited art education (or any other education) opportunities for blacks. Since art was seen as potentially subversive, art classes were permitted for blacks only in township community centers and in a handful of print workshops operated by foreigners, often religious groups. Examples of the restrained but well-crafted graphic output from these workshops in the '70s and '80s are included here, with the suggestion that it was the pilot light that helped keep creative fires burning for blacks during the worst years. That could be true, in part. But the quality, variety and boldness of the work that has burst forth since apartheid ended--the focus of this show--also suggest that even decades of the cruelest repression couldn't rub out South Africa's centuries-old traditions of creativity and craftsmanship.

This show tells only a teasingly small part of this story. But if you want to learn more, there's never been a better time. The Smithsonian Folklife Festival will include programs on South Africa from tomorrow through Sunday and June 30 to July 4. And a film series--nine films tracing the evolution of cinema in South Africa--will begin at the museum July 10 with "Cry, the Beloved Country."

The New Shapes of South Africa

"Claiming Art/Reclaiming Space: Post-Apartheid Art from South Africa" will continue at the National Museum of African Art through Sept. 26. A reading room with books on South Africa and its art has been installed in the exhibit, with comfortable couches nearby. A free color brochure written by curator Lydia Puccinelli has been published. Admission is free.

Several free public programs focusing on South African art and culture are planned, including a film series, gallery talks by artists and storytelling for families. The Smithsonian Folklife Festival will also feature programs on South Africa on the National Mall, tomorrow through Sunday and June 30 to July 4. For details call 202-357-2700 or visit the museum's home page at www.si.edu/nmafa.

The museum is open every day from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and until 8 p.m. on Thursday nights through Sept. 2. It is at 950 Independence Ave. SW. The nearest Metro stop is Smithsonian station.

CAPTION: Willie Bester's three-dimensional collage "The Notorious Green Car," left, and a painting in Gavin Jantjes' "Zulu" series.

CAPTION: Sue Williamson's "DeKock Ready to Sing" depicts a commander's testimony.