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2 / Dreams and Visions

Headrest
Headrest
Artist / Origin Shona artist, Zimbabwe
Region: Africa
Date 19th–20th century
Material Wood
Medium: Sculpture
Dimensions H: 5 in. (12.7 cm)
Location The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Credit Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Dr. James J. Strain

expert perspective

Mary Nooter RobertsProfessor of Culture and Performance, University of California, Los Angeles

Headrest

» Shona artist, Zimbabwe

expert perspective

Mary Nooter Roberts Mary Nooter Roberts Professor of Culture and Performance, University of California, Los Angeles

A headrest is essentially a sleeping pillow, but it’s a sleeping pillow made in many cases from wood. In sub-Saharan Africa, it’s most common to see a headrest made from wood, and one might think how could this be comfortable? How could a pillow from wood possibly be comfortable?

In fact, in a tropical climate, you want a pillow that is cool and that isn’t sort of rubbing up against your neck. And wood is perfect for that. Furthermore, over time, a headrest made from wood that belongs to a person for a very long period of time will conform to a person’s bone structure. And they can actually be remarkably comfortable. Not only that, headrests acquire very personal significance for many people in Africa. Headrests are so closely associated with an individual that if for any reason that person’s body can not be found at death, like let’s say they drowned or something like that, the headrest could be buried in place of the person. And they often are associated with dreams, and we know very definitively that Shona headrests are used by spirit mediums, specifically for contacting the ancestors through dreams for information, for guidance into the future. And so they really are vehicles of problem-solving and visions and dreamwork.” 

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