Headrest in form of storage box with carved heads

late 19th or early 20th century

Dallas Museum of Art

Dallas Museum of Art
Dallas, United States

African "pillows," in contrast to the soft, stuffed Western pillow, are traditionally carved out of wood, a hard material such as ivory or stone or, although rare, fired clay.(13) The basic form of two platforms separated by a vertical post is consistent throughout Africa from Egypt to South Africa, and throughout time, from antiquity to the present. Still used, this "pillow" is called a headrest because of the way it is used. While reclining on one's back or side, an individual places the upper platform at the back of the head. Alternatively, the platform can be placed under one ear and along the chin to support the head (fig. 50).(14) In addition to protecting elaborate hairstyles, headrests provide a good night's sleep because the pressure of the headrest slightly numbs the nerves in the head resulting in a tranquilizing effect.(15)

Headrests sculpted by Luba, Lulua, and Zande artists demonstrate some of the different ways vertical posts may be decorated. Although Luba headrests typically incorporate a human figure, this Luba headrest (cat. 80, 1969.S.109) is a study of geometrical shapes. The vertical post is carved in the form of a lidded convex vessel-not a skeuomorph, but a hollow form-surmounted by a pair of opposing V shapes that cross at the center. The supports and ends of the upper platform are decorated with the nkaka pattern; that is, the scales of the pangolin (scaly anteater) that protect the animal from harm. Another rendering of the animal skin is depicted on the lower platform. The nkaka pattern is found on many important Luba royal emblems and objects used for rites that invoke spiritual aid.(16)

The vertical post of the Lulua headrest (cat. 81, 1978.48.McD) is usually carved in the form of a standing female figure whose face and body are elaborately decorated with low-relief scarification. The female caryatid stands firmly on oversized feet and supports the platform on her head. Her hands are placed at the sides of her body as if to draw attention to her protuberant navel. This headrest may have been carved by the same sculptor who created a headrest in the collection of the University of Pennsylvania Museum that was collected before 1924 in the former Belgian Congo.(17)

This rare Zande headrest (cat. 82), which is decorated with two human heads and contrasting colors, was used for sleeping (or resting) as well as for storing the valuables belonging to a member of the Zande aristocracy. (18) This headrest-box is one of only four extant examples. Of the others, one is in the collection of the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium,(19) and two were formerly in private collections in Los Angeles and New York City.(20)

In addition to supporting the head while one is asleep, preserving hairstyles, and providing storage, African headrests have other purposes. For example, a personal headrest belonging to a Luba notable could be buried instead of the deceased if the corpse was irretrievable.(21)

The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art, cat. 82, pp. 228, 231.


13. Headrests made of hard materials are also used among East Asian and Oceanic/Pacific peoples; see Dewey, William J. Sleeping Beauties: The Jerome L. Joss Collection of African Headrests at UCLA. Los Angeles: University of California, Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1993. pp. 148-179 (Asia) and pp. 180-195 (Oceania).

14. Ibid. pp. 16-17.

Sieber, Roy. African Furniture and Household Objects. Bloomington: Indiana University, 1980. pp. 107-108.

For another selection of headrests, see Sieber, Roy, and Frank Herreman, eds. Hair in African Art and Culture. Munich: Prestel, for the Museum for African Art, 2000. pp. 32-97.

15. Eugene Burt, quoted in Dewey, 1993. p. 17.

16. Roberts, Mary Nooter, and Allen F. Roberts, eds. Memory: Luba and the Making of History. New York: Museum for African Art; Munich: Prestel, 1996. pp. 184-192.

For example, the nkaka pattern is found on diviners' beaded headdress.

17. Wardwell, Allen. African Sculpture from the University Museum, University of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1986. p. 112.

This headdress (acc. no. AF 5154) is attributed to the Pende peoples.

18. Cornet, Joseph. Art of Africa: Treasures from the Congo. Trans. Barbara Thompson. London: Phaidon, 1971. p. 330.

19. Sieber, Roy, and Roslyn Adele Walker. African Art in the Cycle of Life. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press for the National Museum of African Art, 1987. p. 112, cat. no. 63.

20. Sotheby’s. The Kuhn Collection of African Art. Auction catalogue. November 29, 1991. New York: Sotheby’s. lot 94.

Sotheby’s The William W. Brill Collection of African Art. Auction catalogue. November 17, 2006. New York: Sotheby’s. lot 114.

21. Nooter, Mary H. “Luba Arts and Leadership.” MA thesis. Columbia University, 1984. pp. 62-63.


  • Title: Headrest in form of storage box with carved heads
  • Date Created: late 19th or early 20th century
  • Physical Dimensions: Overall: 9 x 15 3/8 x 3 13/16 in. (22.86 x 39.053 x 9.685 cm)
  • Type: Sculpture
  • External Link: https://www.dma.org/object/artwork/3124020/
  • Medium: Wood, fiber, bark, and metal
  • culture: Zande peoples
  • Credit Line: Dallas Museum of Art, The Clark and Frances Stillman Collection of Congo Sculpture, gift of Eugene and Margaret McDermott

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