Historically, headrests were used by both men and women throughout Southeast Africa, but there is no significant evidence of the adoption of carved headrests among the Xhosa-speaking communities in the present-day Eastern Cape region.
Once access to metal tools became widely available, carvers developed a bewildering variety of headrests styles that today can be classified regionally.
In some cases, the work of individual artists has been identified, particularly among Zulu-speaking communities living to the south of the Thukela River in present-day KwaZulu-Natal.
By Professor Sandra Klopper
Some of the headrests collected in the Colony of Natal before the 20th century have bulbous legs that some rural owners referred to as amasondo, or legs of a cow....more
Many Shona and Tsonga headrests use a cross-shape in their supports, but some Tsonga carvers produced exceptionally fine, innovative examples in this tradition....more
From the very earliest days of European settlement on the Natal coast, the headrests used by Zulu-speaking communities fascinated colonial officials and missionaries....more
When Muller and Snelleman travelled through parts of southern Africa in the early 1890s, they recorded the wide variety of headrest styles and forms they encountered, many from present-day Zambia and Mozambique....more
The amasumpa - raised 'warts' or bumps - pattern on these two examples originated in the Zulu Kingdom in the nineteenth century where the motif was considered to represent wealth in the form of cattle....more
As early as the 1940s, some headrest carvers used motifs signalling the changing realities of modes of transport, such as cars and busses....more