The African Headrest

The African Headrest

How the objects we choose to place in our interiors can also teach us about humankind. The items in AU’s collection have been chosen because of their style, their sustainability and their aesthetic. However, each piece – whether it’s a table, a lamp or a sculpture – comes to us already possessing a story of its own.

Before it becomes a part of our own personal heritage, learning about an object’s history and valuing its provenance teaches us much about the place from which the object originated. Taking a closer look at the history of an object means we can marvel at the skill of those who designed and handcrafted it, gaining deeper insights and perspectives into the lives of our fellow human beings. These African headrests, from the private collection of Terence Pethica, are one such example. In style they are unique to areas of southern Africa, but at the same time, part of a global tradition dating back millennia in which people have found ways not only to preserve hairstyles whilst they slept, but also, simply, to have something upon which to rest their heads. It seems that since the dawn of time, humans have fashioned ‘pillows’ out of whatever material they have to hand: clay, wood, stone, bamboo or a cotton casing filled with feathers.

In Africa, most notably the central, western and southern parts, headrests were a status symbol. Most of the cattle-herding traditions made use of them and, if you owned livestock, that most prized of assets, you were considered wealthy. Protecting your herds meant a nomadic lifestyle, travelling with your animals as they roamed. Most cattle-herding cultures had therefore a warrior caste, young men assigned for the important job of safe guarding the valuable cattle. Headrests – light and durable to suit a pastoral lifestyle - were an essential possession. Made specifically for their owners, careful measurements were taken of the distance from shoulder to neck before the headrests were carved. Irrespective of time period or country of origin, it is the young most especially who take pains with their appearance. The men of these warrior-castes were no different and vanity played a part in the widespread use of the object. Whilst watching their cattle, the men would spend hours braiding each other’s hair, dying it with red ochre, or decorating it with clay and beads.

The hairstyles they achieved were elaborate and complex, designed to last in an environment where access to water could be severely limited; it would have been impossible and impractical to recreate them every day and so headrests proved invaluable. Not only did they ensure that hairstyles could be kept intact for months, they also held the head up off the ground, away from the dust. Often intricately carved, headrests were not just the means through which status and vanity were displayed, they were also authentic pieces of tribal art thought to give the young warriors a way to communicate with the ancestors of their past. As in many cultures, extreme significance was placed by the warrior men and their peoples on dreams. It was believed that using a headrest would encourage spirits to enter a person’s consciousness through the medium of sleep, passing on messages and providing guidance to those in the world of the living.

Practical and utilitarian, the headrest is therefore that rare object which is also spiritual and sublime. Its simple wooden structure belies its ability - if we are careful enough to take a second look - to transport us to another belief system, another continent and another time. Aiming to put objects into our living spaces that are both beautiful and meaningful is the goal of every interior stylist. However, it is only right that we afford these objects the greatest of respect. Respect for their past before they came into our hands, respect for the peoples that crafted and used them as well as their place in world history.

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