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Periodical article Periodical article Leiden University catalogue Leiden University catalogue WorldCat catalogue WorldCat
Title:Extensions of the self: artistry and identity in the headrests and stools of southwest Ethiopian peoples
Author:Abbink, JonISNI
Periodical:African Arts (ISSN 0001-9933)
Geographic term:Ethiopia
material culture
External link:https://doi.org/10.1162/AFAR_a_00253
Abstract:In 1980, Roy Sieber's exhibition 'African household and Furniture Objects' (Sieber 1980) first drew attention to the 'functional art' objects of Africa, including wooden headrests and stools. Since then, this category of artifact has gradually drawn more interest among ethnic art lovers, collectors, and researchers, although still in modest dimensions. European explorers and travellers in Africa collected headrests since at least the mid-nineteenth century (Nettleton 2007: 100-101). Headrests and stools are, of course, not confined to Africa alone (Dewey et al. 1993), but have seen a particularly rich and varied development there and are found among many ethnic groups (see also Falgeyrettes 1989). In the past decade or so, the new focus on headrests has led to several major exhibitions in African art museums or ethnology museums and to a spate of websites of traders and collectors. What is a headrest? It is an object, usually wooden, that people rest their head or hairdo on when lying down and carry with them when traveling. It is a mobile item and remains the personal possession of a specific individual. It is used when taking a nap during the day, to sit it on while talking with others, milking a cow, keeping an eye on things while in a restful pose, e.g. during herding; to lie on and gaze at the starry sky at night; and to show in public as a mark of status and group identity. The item is used by both sexes, but predominanly by males. In many cases in southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya, the males in agro-pastoral societies use them to protect their elaborate hairdo when resting. Occasionally women use them after having 'butttered' their hair, but they have less vulnerable hairdos and are most inclined to remain in the restricted space of the home and, as they do not appear in public spaces or travel as much, leave their headrests at home. Using a basic typology, I here present a survey of head- or neckrests of stools (hereafter called: 'headrest-stools') and their presence specifically in southern Ethiopia, showing the variety of forms and their distribution, and reflect on the practical uses and possible meaning of this seemingly simple artifact. Why is it so widespread? What does it stand for? How are aesthetics and practical form combined? I will also briefly address question of commoditization and of when and why people abandon its use. Bibliogr., notes