South Africa
Neckrest (Isicamelo)
19th century

17.8 x 44.5 x 16.1 cm (7 x 17 1/4 x 6 3/8 in.)
Edward E. Ayer Endowment in memory of Charles L. Hutchinson, 1996.434

The royal treasuries of Zulu kings and chiefs in South Africa included beadwork, staffs, thrones, pipes, and neckrests such as this one, sculpted from a single piece of wood. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, neckrests formed part of a Zulu bride’s dowry. She (or her father) usually hired a sculptor to design two of the objects, one for herself, the other for her future husband. A bride needed hers to protect an elaborate coiffure, styled with mud and ochre, which she wore as a sign of respect for her new in-laws and her husband’s ancestors. Women from the Zulu kingdom stopped wearing such hairstyles during the 20th century, which explains why few headrests are commissioned today.

Zulu headrest styles vary greatly, but many share a cow-like form. The gently bowed, four-legged shape of this neckrest may allude to a bull. Among the Zulu, cattle have been a traditional source of wealth and a means of maintaining contact with ancestors (through specially designated cattle in the homestead’s cattle byre). Older headrests, such as this one, also served as a link between family members and their deceased relatives. They remained in the homestead for generations, stored in the rafters of the cooking area where they were protected from insects through constant exposure to smoke.