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Headrest

In many parts of Africa, people have used small wooden “pillows” to raise their heads off the ground while they are sleeping. Headrests are especially associated with traditional ways of life among pastoral peoples of eastern Africa, where they keep elaborate male hairdos from becoming disheveled during the night. Among the Pokot of western Kenya, young men who have completed initiation into adulthood traditionally acquire painted mudpack coiffures as an indication of their adult status, and other complex coiffures are associated with further changes in a man’s status. The longevity of all of these hairdos is extended when their owners protect them by using a headrest. Furthermore, some research suggests that there may be a correlation between a man’s increased status and the elaboration of his headrest, making this beautifully decorated one likely the property of someone important.

Acquired near the city of Kitale in 1978, this headrest is part of a group of nearly 250 objects collected throughout Kenya by Ernie Wolfe III during the 1970s that was purchased in 2014 for Indiana University Art Museum’s African collection. This Kenyan material is particularly strong in the arts of pastoral peoples and includes many types of objects no longer being made and used.

Pokot peoples, Kenya
Headrest
Mid-20th century
Wood, leather, glass beads, fiber
H. 7 9/16 in. (19.2 cm)
Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art, Museum purchase with funds from the Raymond and Laura Wielgus fund and with generous support from the IU Office of the Provost and Executive Vice President, 2014.247