Most museum-goers confront the arts of Africa as estheticians only. Or, to put it bluntly, as visual illiterates. That carving there may move us, but its meanings are obscure, its symbolism veiled. We admire it through ignorance. The strange names on the label -- Yemba or Yaruba -- tell us next to nothing. When was that object made? What powers did it summon? Few of us can say.

Imagine for a moment trying to decipher, say, European paintings with so little comprehension. If we'd never heard of Pilate, of the Stations of the Cross, we might suppose that Christians honored the right angle. From halos we might gather that they liked circles, too.

African exhibits that tell us what we're looking at are still rarer than they ought to be. But one is now on view.

"The Rising of a New Moon: A Century of Tabwa Art," now on exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African Art, is focused with precision on one people only, and on their recent history. Its carvings are not floating things, displayed out of context, but objects tied to time and place. Throughout the exhibition, we are told, wherever possible, how these things were used, and what their markings mean, and -- this is even more unusual -- the exploits and the names of the chieftains who once owned them.

In many of these objects we read a history of colonial conquest, bigotry and blood. That standing male figure, the one that wears a bushpig tusk, to take just one example, was once owned by Chief Lusinga, who met a violent death in 1884. A Belgian explorer, Lt. Emile Storms, led the band that took his head. Storms, known to the Tabwa as "Bwana Boma" ("Mr. Fort"), and to the Belgian press as "The Emperor of Tanganyika," had been instructed by the European sponsors of his expedition to "collect a few skulls of indigenous niggers" if this could be done "without offending (their) superstitious sentiments." He did as he was told. Storms attacked Lusinga's camp, killing in the battle perhaps 60 men and capturing as slaves 125. Storms, obedient to his orders, sent Lusinga's head to Belgium. That skull has since been lost, but many of the statues taken in that raid are now here on view.

Tabwa works are rare. There are perhaps 500 (frequently mislabeled "Holoholo," "Tumbwe," "Rua," "Gua," "Lemba," "Bemba," "Wemba," "Kunda" or "Kamanya") in collections outside Africa, and 417 of these are illustrated and explained in the exhibition catalogue. This is more than just a "treasure" show. It is a teaching exhibition. It nourishes the mind.

Two men made it possible. Its cocurators, Evan M. Maurer, now director of the University of Michigan's Museum of Art, and Allen F. Roberts, an Albion College anthropologist, became friends in college when both were members of the wrestling team at Amherst. Maurer has been trained since then as an art historian. Roberts, in the '70s, spent four years with the Tabwa in southeastern Zaire near Lake Tanganyika. Throughout the exhibition their teamwork is apparent. Their complementary skills lend density and muscle to their exemplary show.

The typical Tabwa sculpture, and there are many on display, is a naked human figure carved of hard, dark wood. Its torso and its neck are long, its legs are relatively short, its knees are slightly flexed, it stands on blocky feet. Its waist is often belted with thongs or strings of beads. Its hands rest on its belly as if pointing at, or guarding, its large, bulging navel. Lines of welted scars describe circles, lines or triangles on its oiled, wooden skin.

Frequently it wears a flat disc of shell or ivory, or perhaps a Belgian coin, where the chest joins the throat.

The carvings on display have various sorts of powers. Some, like statues displayed in cathedrals, are connected to the holy. They may either curse or cure. Others are political. Like, say, a bust of George Washington on view in the White House, these images of office, of legitimate authority, were regarded by the Tabwa as attributes of chieftainship. Whether sacred or secular, these masks and throne-like chairs, staffs and metal bracelets were all meant to be read.

The exhibition's catalogue teaches us to read their complex, layered messages. A cross worn around the neck by a Catholic bishop does not mean quite the same thing as one on the lapel of a Baptist televison preacher, and a cross worn as an earring by the rock star Madonna hints at something else again. The same sort of complexity governs the devices found on Tabwa art. Those discs of shell, those beaded belts and those lines of ordered scars surely serve as ornaments, but they are more. Whether read as signs of class or caste, or just as sexy decorations, all acknowledge the position in the universe of the Tabwa and their gods.

For the Tabwa, balamwezi, "the rising of the new moon," is an image as important, and as multireferential, as the cross is for the Christians. Hence the title of the show.

While gazing at the rising moon the westerner might think of song lyrics or astronauts, of poetry or June. But for the artists of the Tabwa, that bright new silver sliver evokes whole cosmologies. The new moon is victorious. It defeats preceding darkness, as knowledge defeats ignorance, as the power of the sorcerer defeats that of mere mortals. The dark nights before its rising are called kamwonang'anga. "This means," explains Roberts, " 'the one (only) seen by the ng'anga or practitioner of magical medicines.' In other words, the moon may disappear and be invisible to ordinary mortals' eyes, but it is 'still there.' "

That mysterious sense of the visible concealed, of enlightenment just out of sight, is felt throughout this show.

Both the moon-disc at the throat, and the belt worn round the waist, suggest, as does the moon, a yin-and-yang-like sense of ruling circularity, of phases in strict sequence and opposites in balance. Triangles, in Tabwa art, evoke the moon as well -- its waxing and its fullness and the waning that then follows, its rising to its apex and then its descent. The messages such signs convey are often richly layered: The way the statues' hands seem to guard the navel, that symbol of one's birth, hints at lineage, at passing time and, as does the moon, at circularities as well.

The bushpig tusk worn around the neck of Chief Lusinga's statue (on loan here from Belgium, from the Royal Museum of Central Africa) is another lunar symbol, but it is not only that.

"The bushpig," notes the catalogue, "is an emblem of Lusinga's Sanga clan, symbolizing both skill in farming (after the manner in which bushpigs root around, 'tilling' the soil) and an ability to lay waste to enemies (after the way bushpigs devastate Tabwa farmers' crops). The uncanny, almost magical way bushpigs elude a farmer's attempts to trap them, and the moon-like crescent formed by the linked tusks, complete the imagery appropriate to chiefs of great cunning and ruthlessness."

A sense of overlapping meanings and of dialectic balance empowers almost all the objects on display.

Look, for instance, at that powerful, double-headed figure, on loan here from Berlin, which seems to be considering both the future and the past. A similar idea is evoked by the lines of scars that run from throat to navel on so many of these statues. That midline is called mulalambo. That term has other meanings, such as "endless" and "defining." And that same word is applied to the Milky Way, the line that "splits the sky."

Nowhere is that sense of symmetry-in-charge, so apparent in these carvings, explained with more clarity than in the legend of the aardvark Mutumbi, the "Burrower," who, at the creation, brought light to the Earth.

Why the aardvark as protagonist? That animal, after all, as Roberts tells his readers, is "a preposterous beast by any measure." But its preposterousness, he indicates, is central to the myth.

"The aardvark's snout, long and peniform, is found so amusing that Tabwa women are prevented from seeing it, lest their uncontrolled hilarity spoil men's hunting luck. Through this inversion ('phallus' on head), the opposition of head to loins, hence, intellect to sexuality, is made apparent . . . Other characteristics of the animal prove apposite. Its tracks, for instance, are three-toed. 'Three' is an important male symbol, associated with hunting and the moon . . . This may in part explain the three-sidedness of the balamwezi decorative pattern." The aardvark, in addition, although "not in the least a rare animal," is hardly ever seen in daylight, yet its toe-prints are so common, one "knows that it is there."

"The aardvark as protagonist, then, is especially 'good to think' since it evokes such a wide range of essential oppositions (head/loins, intellect/sexuality, human/animal . . . light/darkness, visible/'invisible.') And it does this with the greatest economy . . . The aardvark, hero of darkness, shares a contrapuntal relationship with the moon, and like that body, is a master of duality."

Not all these objects look alike. The large eyes of these statues are sometimes round and sometimes diamond-shaped, sometimes open, sometimes closed. Tabwa artists, it is clear, like those in the West, were allowed much latitude. But a governing philosophy unifies their efforts. As one wanders through this show, its objects start to rhyme.

One thing they share is roundness. It is seen here in those tall, proud, columnar necks, in these beads and belts and moon-discs, in these bellows and these gourds. A sense of rigid symmetry is ever-present, too. It is seen here in that Janus-head, and in those midline scars, and in the cross of small brass tacks that quarters the strong face of that buffalo mask from Geneva.

That allegiance to duality is also here encountered in the many little figurines, almost all cylindrical, some wonderfully abstract, that Roberts calls "twin figures." Twins matter to the Tabwa. Often they are seen as something more than merely human -- "they hear a lot," is the way one Tabwa put it; "these are not children, they are bakubwa elders or great ones." When a young twin dies, a twin figure is commissioned as a sort of replacement "to be carried by the mother and later by its surviving mate." The body of a dead twin is buried at a crossroads, an act that calls to mind all the other midlines, centralities and crosses in this strongly ordered show. The local word for twins means "children of the moon."

The Tabwa are not numerous. There are perhaps 200,000. Their societies and rituals have changed much since 1884, and so, as Roberts' text makes clear, have the functions of their art.

Though a new home on the Mall is now being constructed for the National Museum of African Art, the institution is still housed at 318 A St. NE. The Tabwa exhibit will travel to Ann Arbor, Mich., and then to Belgium's Royal Museum of Central Africa after closing here March 17.