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This splendid Tsonga headrest (or more properly, neckrest) has a superb varying patina with contours softened by age and handling. It has a a bi-lobed base from which two crenulated columns emerge. These support an arched pillow beneath which lugs have been carved on each side. Each end of the top of the pillow is decorated with a row of zig-zag motifs.
Placing an exact attribution on southern African headrests can be difficult. Many of the groups in southern Africa had headrests of similar form and with similar motifs. Additionally, there was significant migration among the groups. This headrest is most readily attributable to the Tsonga but might also be considered Shona or Shangaan. The pendant lugs on either side are particularly Tsonga. But as a group, the headrests from this area have become well known for the complexity of their construction, their variety, and the inventiveness of the carvers.
Headrests or neckrests were utilitarian, in that they protected the hairstyle of the sleeper: many such hairstyles were large and elaborate. The oils that were rubbed into the hair would become transferred to the headrest over time, or the owners would rub the headrest with the same oils to preserve it, thereby adding to the surface depth and lustre.
Despite their utilitarian nature, over many years of use and with their connection with the head, inevitably they took on a spiritual association. Sometimes, after the death of the owner, the headrest was considered a vehicle through which the deceased owner might be contacted from the ancestral realm.
The headrest here is in fine condition and is without breaks or repairs. The chip carving construction is very evident and lends to the item’s overall texture and aesthetic value.
See lot 796 in Bonham’s New York ‘Fine African and Oceanic Art’ sale of May 14, 2008, for a related headrest but with just one crenulated support column instead of two.
Klopper, S., A, Nettleton & T. Pethica, The Art of Southern Africa: The Terence Pethica Collection, 5 Continents, 2007.