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Art Through Time: A Global View

Dreams and Visions Art: Headrest

» Shona artist, Zimbabwe


Artist / Origin: Shona artist, Zimbabwe
Region: Africa
Date: 19th–20th century
Period: 1900 CE – 2010 CE
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

The Shona people live in the present-day regions of Zimbabwe and southern Mozambique.

Although the Shona do not produce figurative arts, they have a rich tradition of creating embellished items for spiritual and practical use. They are especially well-known for their headrests, which are generally carved from wood and feature intricate patterns holding personal significance for their owners.

Although this headrest is a more recent example, similar pieces from southern Africa date as early as the thirteenth century. Traditionally, only mature men used such headrests. The curved surface of the headrest’s platform was designed to support the head of a sleeper lying on his side. By raising the head, the object served to keep a man’s elaborate braided hairstyle clean and in place during the night

Headrests like this one, however, were not merely utilitarian in nature. Rather, they were believed to form a connection between the living world and the spiritual realm. The Shona people say that when a person dreams, he or she is “walking” with the ancestors. The headrest was thought to act as a conduit to this world of dreams wherein the sleeper might commune with ancestors and spirits. In fact, spirit-mediums would often have headrests made for use in rituals to enable them to contact the spirit world for guidance and information.

Headrests were considered so personal that they were often buried with the deceased. In some cases, they would be passed on to a person’s heirs as a symbolic link to the family’s ancestral past.

Expert Perspective: 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.”

Additional Resources

“Art and Oracle: African Art and Rituals of Divination.” In Explore & Learn. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site.

Dewey, William J., Toshiko M. McCallum, and Jerome Feldman. Sleeping Beauties: The Jerome L. Joss Collection of African Headrests at UCLA. Los Angeles: Fowler Museum of Cultural History, University of California, 1993.

“Headrest [Zimbabwe; Shona people] (2001.759.2).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site. (October 2006).

LaGamma, Alisa. Art and Oracle African Art and Rituals of Divination. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000.

Nettleton, Anitra. African Dream Machines: Style, Identity and Meaning of African Headrests. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 2008.

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