Neck Rest (Isicamelo)

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South Africa

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 i 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

Exhibition, Publication and Ownership Histories

Ownership History

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.