Case 4

East Africa and Beyond

“Shona” headrests (mutsago) come from Zimbabwe and a number of neighbouring areas. These (and those from Southern Africa) are different in type from those of East and Central Africa. In hard wood, they have lobed bases and play on a combination of structural and decorative elements. The carved supports follow various patterns, including large vertical supports and X-shaped structures, often combining a whole range of circular, triangular and rectilinear shapes in a combination of positive and negative spaces. Here too their main function would have been to protect the elaborate hairdresses and the hairstyles of the people who used them. They acquired their dark brown patina through continual handling. As in Egypt, they were often buried with their owners.

The symbolism of the decoration has been discussed by many scholars. It has been suggested that they may recall scarification (myora) and ndoro shells, calling to mind the ancestors (mudzimu/ mhondoro) and the women who guarantee fertility. As a consequence of this the headrest in Shona relates to male/ female social relations. They also allow the user to communicate with the spirits of their ancestors, and the wider spirit world. Headrests were also closely tied to the user’s status. Such conclusions reflect the present state of scholarship, but also the fact that there is a dearth of early primary sources discussing Shona headrests.

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The Fitzwilliam Museum : Case 4

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