Shona, early 20th Century
Museum Purchase

Headrests are highly personal items, made for a particular person and kept for a lifetime. Indeed, over time the top of the headrest is worn down in the shape of the owner’s neck—a custom fit. Moreover, the oils from the owner’s skin and hair create a patina on the wood, and ultimately the headrest becomes an extension of the owner. The Shona of eastern Zimbabwe and Mozambique typically adorn their headrests with geometric designs—chevrons, lozenges, and spirals—carved in deep relief. These designs are referred to as nyora, the same word used to describe a scar or cicatrix. The negative space reinforces the geometric composition, creating visual interest on the back of the headrest as well. The concentric circles at the center of the headrest are based on the ndoro, the shell of a mollusc that is ground down into a flat circle. The ndoro washes up on the east African coast and was traded by the Portuguese. As prestige objects, they are a symbol of wealth, leadership, and divination.