image for Headrest
Label Text
Shona and Tsonga headrests share similar stylistic features. This headrest is typical of the Shona style in two of its three structural elements. The upper platform is rectangular with ends curved slightly upward and with flaplike appendages. The base is a flat double circle that forms a figure eight. The supporting column, however, is unusual. It is composed of 4 cylindrical posts encircled at the midpoint by 18 shorter cylinders. Whereas the main supports are spaced evenly with openings between them, the central structure is solid, lending both visual and structural weight to the entire composition.
It has been theorized that certain features on these headrests allude to the female gender--the triangular form at the center of the base, the chip-carved areas on the top ends of the upper platform that simulate female scarification (nyora) and the beaded bands wrapped around the support. Research has placed the origins of a comparable headrest in Chipinga in southeastern Mozambique, giving it a Tsonga attribution.
The original use for the headrest was as a wood pillow to keep elaborate, well-oiled coiffures from being flattened or soiled by dust. Headrests were used exclusively by adult males. Although elaborate hairstyles of tufts ornamentally arranged and tied up with beads are no longer prevalent among the Shona and Tsonga, headrests continue to have religious and ritual functions. They are reported to be used in praying to the ancestors. They are also part of the paraphernalia of spirit mediums; their association with ancestors lends authentication to the medium's practices. They have been linked to the widespread belief in Shona society that dreams are an important means for acquiring knowledge and in resolving problems. Dreams are also believed to assist artists, especially musicians and sculptors, in realizing their creations.
The use of headrests in southern Africa is ancient. Excavations at Great Zimbabwe have revealed gold plates that probably covered headrests buried with their owners as long ago as the 12th century A.D. Other headrests have been recovered from caves that have served over the centuries as burial places for the Shona. In more recent times, Shona headrests that were not buried with their owners have been passed down to male heirs, probably the continuation of a longstanding practice.
Wood headrest with a rectangular seat slightly curved upward on both ends, with flap-like appendages on the sides. The supporting column is composed of four cylindrical posts wrapped at the mid point by eighteen shorter cylinders. The base is a flat double circle that forms a figure eight. Triple strings of blue and green glass beads encircle both the neck and base of the headrest.
Dr. Werner Muensterberger, New York, ca. 1950-1980 to 1989
Exhibition History
General Exhibition, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., October 7, 2019–ongoing
The Art of Daily Life: Portable Objects from Southern Africa, Cleveland Museum of Art, April 17, 2011-February 26, 2012
Art of the Personal Object, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., September 24, 1991-April 9, 2007
Published References
National Museum of African Art. 1999. Selected Works from the Collection of the National Museum of African Art. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, pp. 170-171, no. 126.
Petridis, Constantine. 2011. The Art of Daily Life: Portable Objects from Southern Africa. Cleveland: Cleveland Museum of Art; Milan: 5 Continents Editions, pp. 31, 98, no. 3.
Credit Line
Museum purchase
See more items in
National Museum of African Art Collection
ongoing exhibition
On View
NMAfA, Pavilion Gallery
Early to mid-20th century
Object number
Shona artist
Tsonga artist
Male use
Gaza Province, Mozambique
Limpopo Province, South Africa
Wood, glass beads, plant fiber
H x W x D: 12.7 x 15.2 x 7 cm (5 x 6 x 2 3/4 in.)
National Museum of African Art
Furniture and Furnishing