Most of us would not think of a pillow as a status symbol, just something to put your head on when you go to sleep. But in Africa the traditional form of pillow is a headrest, and these say a lot about who you are and your place in society. Within African tribal society there is no such thing as “art for art’s sake.” Objects that are viewed as art in the West, have a more subtle dimension to them that convey spiritual and/or social messages.

Regardless of the living standards, whether modest or royal, dwellings display the same concern for aesthetic beauty. Each object that is made, be it a chair, bowl, weapon, door, or fabric, reveals the artisans particular care to create an appearance that pleased the eye and conveyed subtle messages about the owner.

Beds are often quite simple, being either a low platform made from wood or mud and covered in textiles made from plant fibres. However, the humble pillow in African tribal society was transformed into small masterpieces that spoke of social hierarchy and beauty. The general form is that of a curved support, a column shaped body and a flat base; the shape has not changed much from those used in ancient Egypt. The function of the headrest went beyond the mere utilitarian and being associated with dreams and sleep, the headrest is believed to be the recipient of spiritual forces. The headrest was a deeply personal item and never lent to another person. In some societies, such as the Shona, only men are allowed to use headrests.

Those of the Luba people are highly complex with caryatid figures acting as supports. These figures display the physical forms of female beauty much admired by the Luba men, such as elongated heads, elaborate hairstyles, scarification marks and slender proportions. Luba women have very elaborate hairstyles, and the higher up in society that you are, the more elaborate the hairstyle; these can take many hours, even days, to complete. The headrests protect the hairstyle whilst the women are resting, and also act as a symbol of the wealth and prestige of the person using it. They also have a spiritual dimension to them as the figures act as guardians against malevolent spirits whilst the person sleeps.  

The Pende people of the Democratic Republic of Congo, are matrilineal and this is expressed in some of the wonderful objects that they have created specifically for use by women, such as the headrest (fig. 1) that has been transferred from the Derbyshire School Library Service to the permanent collections at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery. Like the Luba, the Pende women have elaborate hairstyles that speak of social status. The carving on the headrest at Buxton Museum imitates woven plant fibre, but expresses a geometric form that captivates the eye. Craftsmen play an important role in Pende society, and they are looked upon as being just as important as nobles. They receive a gift of the first portion of food from the harvest; a privilege which is usually only reserved for clan chiefs.

Fig. 1 Pende headrest, Democratic Republic of Congo. SLS acc. no. M614a.1

The Tsonga people of South Africa create very distinctive headrests that resemble small stools. This example (fig. 2) of a Tsonga headrest, is also from the Derbyshire School Loans Service and is being transferred to the National Museums of Scotland. The headrest in Tsonga society is believed to be a metaphor for women, as the lugs to the side are sometimes decorated with beaded earrings. Headrests have also been described as mhamba, a Tsonga term used to describe any object, act, or even person that is used to establish a bond between the gods and people. For example, the headrest is conceived to serve as a communicating vehicle through which to contact ancestors and spirits in dreams.

Fig. 2 Tsonga headrest, South Africa. SLS acc. no. M6356.1

Some headrests were meant to be carried around, such as the example from the Turkana people in Kenya (fig. 3), also to be transferred to the National Museums of Scotland from the Derbyshire School Library Service. Here, the plant fibre handle would enable the headrest to be hooked onto the arm. The Turkana are a nomadic pastoralist people who also practise elaborate hairstyles for social identification and this, together with the nomadic way of life, made the use of light, portable headrests a necessity.

Fig. 3 Turkana headrest, Kenya. SLS acc. no. M6536.2

So, when you next go to sleep have a think about what your pillow says about you, especially when you wake up after a nightmare with bed hair – maybe it’s time to invest in a headrest!