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Shona headrest (Mutsago), Zimbabwe
late 19th/early 20th century
wood, pigment
5" tall x 6" long
ex private collection, CT

$1800 - SOLD

A nice classic example of a Shona headrest.

"Among the Shona headrests that have survived intact are some with intensely personal
designs. It is thought that these elaborately carved and embellished pieces were used only by
adult men, and that each of them may have been custom-made for its individual owner. The
style of headrest shown here has come to be regarded as typically Shona. There seems to be
a consensus that headrests of this type have an essentially female quality, whether through
the triangular notch on the base (which may refer to female genitals), or through the designs
on the support (called
nyora, the same name used for the scarification that Shona women
used to have on their torsos). These headrests often feature different designs on the front and
back of their supports, possibly referring to the front and back of a female body.

Such a headrest might have been used by a man in the past by placing it outside the dwelling
of one of his wives to indicate that he intended to sleep with her that night. These headrests
often feature different designs on the front and back of their supports, possibly referring to the
front and back of a female body. Common on the oval or circular elements of the support are
concentric circle motifs, which, in some examples are replaced by three-dimensional breast
forms, but which may well refer to the ends of the conus shell (
ndoro), worn as signs of status
by adult Shona men and women.

Because of the intensely personal character of a headrest, it is therefore not surprising that
they were usually buried with their owners, to support their heads in death as they had in
sleep, but they might also be passed onto their heirs after their owners died and may have
become part of a collection of ancestral relics."