Art/ Collection/ Art Object


19th–20th century
Ethiopia, Oromia Region
Oromo peoples
H. 6 x W. 5 5/8 in. (15.2 x 14.3 cm)
Credit Line:
The Bryce Holcombe Collection of African Decorative Art, Bequest of Bryce Holcombe, 1984
Accession Number:
Not on view
This headrest was carved by an Oromo artist to preserve the elaborate hairstyle of its owner during sleep. While carved from a single piece of wood, the base, column and platform are articulated as separate elements. The light, yellow-tan wood was turned on a lathe to create a conical base that is hollow on the interior. The harmonious sense of expansion and contraction along the cone’s surface is emphasized by the groups of incised concentric lines. The upper portion of the base has nine rings divided into groups of six and three, while the bottom has eight rings, divided into groups of three and five. While the exterior of the rest is highly polished, the rough interior of these rings have been darkened with alternating bands of red and black pigment. The base is joined to the platform by a tubular column, which is also incised with three concentric rings. At its summit is a shallow, saddle-shaped rest that tapers at each end.

Personal objects, headrests support the head by cradling it along the jawline, elevating it from the ground. While some regions of central and southern Africa associate headrests with dreaming and divination, they are purely practical in eastern African. Ergonomically, they align the spine, while functionally, they protect intricate hairstyles from dust or from being flattened. Hairstyles, which can take hours to create, are not simply elements of beautification, but serve as the visual representation for their wearer’s social status, age, rank, and gender. The personal nature of the headrest is reflected in the vocabulary used to describe them in two of Ethiopia’s most commonly spoken languages. In Amharic, they are known as yagertera (“pillow of my land”), while in Oromiffaa, they are called boraati (“tomorrow-you”). (Moreno 2015, 194) Even after the end of their useful life, headrests retain the traces of their owners; several examples in the Metropolitan’s collections have a dark sheen on the upper platform and sides, the result of the wood becoming imbued with butter-based hair dressings (käbbe) and other materials used to shape and condition the hair.

The oldest preserved headrests on the African continent were found in Egypt and have been dated to the second and third dynasties of the Old Kingdom (ca. 2,649–2,150 B.C.). Many of these ancient Egyptian headrest forms—particularly the solid block shaped rest—have parallels in east African headrests created some five millennia later. In southern and central Ethiopia, the use of headrests is believed to have started two to three-hundred years ago. Among the most common forms are the single block, the columned rest with curved platform, and the conical base with curved platform, such as this example. Due to their portable nature, headrests were once used widely among the pastoralist groups of Ethiopia and other regions of eastern Africa. They are less commonly used today because many pastoralists have transitioned to sedentary farming or moved to cities. The diversity of forms in Ethiopian headrests cannot be strictly categorized by gender, or assigned to a single ethnic group; rather, every form is carved by the Oromo, Sidaama, Gurage, and other south-central Ethiopian peoples. Some shapes and ornaments are also shared with groups in nearby Kenya, Uganda, and South Sudan, reflecting the transfer of forms across the region.

Kristen Windmuller-Luna, 2016
Sylvan C. Coleman and Pam Coleman Memorial Fund Fellow in the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas

Further Reading

Dewey, William Joseph., Toshiko M. McCallum, Jerome Feldman, and Henrietta Cosentino. Sleeping Beauties: The Jerome L. Joss Collection of African Headrests at UCLA. Los Angeles: Fowler Museum of Cultural History, University of California, 1993.

Moreno, Eduardo López, and Thierry Naudin. Wooden Dreams: East African Headrests from the Eduardo López Moreno Collection. Milan: 5 Continents, 2015.

Nettleton, Anitra C. E. "East African Headrests: Identity, Form and Aesthetics." In African Dream Machines: Style, Identity and Meaning of African Headrests, pp. 187–243. Johannesburg, South Africa: Wits University Press, 2007.
Bryce P. Holcombe, New York, until (d.) 1984

Dewey, William J. Sleeping beauties: the Jerome L. Joss collection of African headrests at UCLA. Los Angeles: Fowler Museum at UCLA, 1993.

Nettleton, Anitra. "East African Headrests: Identity, Form and Aesthetics." In African Dream Machines: Style, Identity and Meaning of African Headrests. Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2007.

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