Karen’s Cabinet of Curiosities June 2017

2017-06-22-2419Curiosity: Headrest/stool

Origin: South Sudan, Africa

Creator: Bari tribe

Date: 1902

Material: Wood and leather

Measurements: 155 x 200mm

Egyptian headrest, 18th dynasty, ca. 1390-1295BC ©Trustees of the British Museum

Headrests might not seem very comfortable to Europeans, but they were very common among Asians and Africans and Oceanic peoples until the 20th century. (Japanese geishas used them, for example; you might remember the scene in the movie Memoirs of a Geisha in which apprentice geisha Sayuri tries to sleep with her intricate hairstyle using a headrest for the first time.) The oldest examples where found in Egyptian tombs, dating back to the 3rd millennium BC. They helped protecting elaborate hairdos of men and women alike and could also double as stools. They were often associated closely with its original producer and/or owner and handed down from generation to generation, carefully looked after and repaired as necessary. Some tribes saw them as status symbols (as with the ornamented headdresses), or believed that they could influence their dreams. As Rebecca L. Green and Frank J. Yurco observe, headrests are “one of the strongest forms of commonality of African traditions, from antiquity to the present, and from one end of the continent to another.”

Bari men, Richard Buchta, 1878, Pitt Rivers Museum

This specific headrest was created by the Bari, historically a pastoral tribe living in the Nile valley in today’s South Sudan. The label attached to the object states its origin as ‘Gondokoro Uganda’ and the year ‘1902’. Gondokoro is situated on the White Nile, just north of Juba, the capital of South Sudan. Back in 1902, that area was still part of Uganda. The headrest was acquired by architect Sidney Kyffin Greenslade (1866-1955) who was appointed ‘Consulting Curator’ to the university’s Arts and Crafts Museum by the Gwendoline Margaret (1882-1951) and Margaret Sydney (1884-1963) Davies in 1918. He wanted to extend the ethnographic collection of the museum and bought artefacts such as Japanese and Chinese ceramics, paddles and fishing spears of the South Pacific Islands and Native American baskets. With regard to the African continent, he not only purchased headrests but also musical instruments and various utensils made of ivory and wood.

This headrest was apparently carved from one piece of wood. The top is decorated with a pattern of chequered triangles on both ends. In the online article Triumph, Protection and Dreams: East African Headrests in Context, the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, explains, “the incisions on headrests are sometimes linked to bodily scarification, with symbolic overtones.” Maybe this is the case with the pattern on our headrest as the Bari people’s skin was traditionally scarred during initiation rituals. Furthermore, it has three plaited leather straps on one side, supposedly for carrying.


(Click on below images to enlarge them.)


Holland, Neil, Meyrick, Robert. To instruct and inspire: 125 Years of the Art and Crafts Collection. Aberystwyth: University of Wales, School of Art P, 1997. Print.

Seligman, C. G, Seligman B. Z. “The Bari.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 58 (1928), 409-479. JSTOR. Web. 20 Jun 2017.

Sieber, Roy, Herremann, Frank. “Hair in African Art and Culture.” African Arts 33.3 (2000): 54-69+96. JSTOR. Web. 20 Jun 2017.

Vendryes, Margaret Rose. “Africa in Repose: Stools and Headrests.” Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University 58.1/2 (1999): 38-53. JSTOR. Web. 20 Jun 2017.














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