Neck Rest (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
In the 19th century, under the shrewd leadership of Shaka Zulu, the Zulu kingdom grew in power and influence. The royal treasuries of Zulu kings and chiefs in South Africa included beadwork, staffs, thrones, pipes, and neckrests like 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. 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 as well as a means of maintaining contact with ancestors. This rest's large size suggests that it may have been a nonfunctional prestige object.
— Descriptive text
Unknown owner, London, by 1990; sold, Christies, South Kensington, Oct. 2, 1990, lot 266, as An Unusual Southern African Headrest, to Kevin Conru, Tribal Art of London; sold to the Art Institute, 1996.