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Think of the last museum you visited, or whose content you experienced online. What sorts of objects did you see? Mostly paintings? Sculpture? Where were these objects from? Do you know how they got to the museum in the first place? If you look closely at museum labels, either in person or on a museum’s website, you’ll often see a “credit line” indicating who gave the object to the museum. Sometimes objects are gifts of private individuals, sometimes they’re purchased with money from specific funds. Often one person will gift a large number of objects to the museum at once, sometimes as part of a bequest in their will. But how did that person get those objects? This question is a little more difficult to answer for a given object without having the museum’s records on hand. If it’s a contemporary work, it was likely acquired via auction or direct sale, or maybe as a gift from the artist. Older works are more likely to be acquired via auction or inheritance, but how did they get to the point where they could be auctioned off or passed down to the next generation in the first place? For non-Western works, this provenance, or history of ownership, tends to be particularly murky, especially for members of the public who can’t access the full provenance record buried in a museum or collector’s archive. A good example of a non-Western object that raises some questions as to its provenance is one Zimbabwean headrest in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York—it’s dated to the 19th or 20th centuries, and is attributed to the Shona peoples of the region. The Met has a number of similar headrests, including one incredibly similar to the one I’ll be discussing, and which seems to have been included in the same gift. There’s not much information about either headrest on their respective pages on the Met’s website, which, combined with the extremely broad date range for both, as well as the way in which the provenance is listed, raises a lot of questions about how non-Western objects that don’t fit clearly into the category of “art” are treated by museums and scholars.
I’ve relied heavily on Dr. Anitra Nettleton’s book African Dream Machines: Style, Identity, and Meaning of African Headrests, as well as Dr. Alois S. Mlambo’s History of Zimbabwe for the information in this episode. Both of these books are available in ebook form if you’d like more info on Zimbabwe or the many variations of headrests throughout Africa, and I highly recommend you check them out. Now, lie back on your headrest of choice (if you can) and let’s think together about the significance both of this wooden headrest and of the way its history is—or is not—presented to the public.
A description of a Shona headrest. Carved wood, 19th to 20th century, about 12 cm high, 6 cm deep, and 15 cm wide. In the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art with the accession number 2001.759.3, not to be confused with the very similar headrest with the accession number 2001.759.2.
The base of the headrest appears to take the form of two rounded, flat shapes squished together, from which emerges the column that connects the base to the concave head support. The column is carved into circular and roughly triangular shapes: four sets of three lines converge toward two points on both the bottom and the top, ultimately connecting at those points to two circles in the center of the column. The left circle features three almond-like shapes in its center, while the right features an X. In between the gathered sets of lines at top and bottom, the wood has been carved out, creating two triangular holes at the top and the bottom, and two roughly diamond-shaped holes above and below where the circles meet at the center of the column. The head support appears to have been cracked in the center and repaired at some point, but it was likely originally one piece. The photo on the Met’s website barely shows three triangles, themselves arranged in a triangle, shallowly carved onto the face of the support so their points face one another, as though mirrored. The wood of which the headrest is made is dark and smooth, and in some places, especially the base and the column, seems to have taken on a dark patina.
Headrests are produced in cultures all over the world—within Shona culture, according to the Met, they are used not only to protect the hair and support the head while sleeping, but also as “vehicles for communicating with an ancestral realm.” Information from the Smithsonian on a Shona headrest in their collection also places headrests among the, quote, “paraphernalia of spirit mediums… They have been linked to the widespread belief in Shona society that dreams are an important means for acquiring knowledge and in resolving problems.” End quote. To some extent, however, the specific functions of headrests within Shona societies are unknown, in part because headrests are no longer used as actively as they once were. An article from 1986 on Shona artistry and artisanship confirms that this shift in headrest usage goes back a ways, describing the headrest’s function as primarily ritualistic rather than practical. The specific headrest I’ve selected has some carved ornamentation on it that, in theory, could have some kind of significance, but as the Met emphasizes in relation to its near-twin object, quote: “The symbolism of the inscribed motifs has been addressed and readdressed by numerous scholars and remains open to debate. Part of the problem stems from the fact that in any society, such knowledge may not be widely known… The most common explanation of the decoration is simply aesthetic indulgence—to beautify the headrest.” End quote. Between the justifiable secrecy surrounding certain types of information within a given culture, as well as the effects of time and colonialism, we simply do not know precisely why this headrest was decorated in this particular way. However, we can recognize trends among existing objects, and the circle-and-triangle support on our headrest is recognized as a fairly common motif. An 1892 catalogue of works by people from southeastern Africa included a number of similar headrests with circle-triangle supports, and notes that such headrests are common in the Zambezi river basin. But, as Anitra Nettleton notes, there are some problems with the provenance, or collection history, of these objects that make them difficult to definitively attribute to Shona peoples, especially since there is evidence they were used by members of other groups.
Complicating this even further is the fact that Shona refers not to a specific tribe or group, but to a large ethnic group that comprises a number of subgroups. In 2012, Shona people accounted for 80% of the approximately 13 million-strong population of Zimbabwe. Additionally, the term “Shona” really only emerged in the early 20th century, prior to which, Alois Mlambo says, quote, “no one in the territory that became Zimbabwe ever called themselves Shona, and neither was there a language with such a name.” End quote. As is so often the case with African history, much of what we claim to know about a given culture or country is deeply affected by colonialism. Even the words and categorizations we use to make sense of our world are frequently influenced by colonialist ways of thinking. Zimbabwe’s history in the nineteenth century—the early range of when the headrest we’re looking at may have been produced—is bound up with colonialist exploitation and violence, and features one of the most notorious names in colonialist history: Cecil John Rhodes.
In the early nineteenth century, Shona groups’ sovereignty in the region that would later become Zimbabwe was disrupted by the movements of the Nguni and the Ndebele, the latter of which grew to dominate the region. The Ndebele, or AmaNdebele, have in the past been portrayed as violent warriors constantly raiding the Shona, but Mlambo acknowledges that the situation was much more complex. However, the narrative of the violent Ndebele threatening the peaceful Shona was one that British colonizers used as part of their justification for taking over the region in the late nineteenth century. Colonization of the African continent by European powers had been going on since around the sixteenth century, but new developments such as the Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism and nationalism kicked things into high gear. The quote-unquote “Scramble for Africa” and its natural (and human) resources became so essential to European power that in 1884, a conference was held in Berlin with representatives from major European colonizers to decide the rules of engagement for their various missions. Representatives from the African countries to be colonized were, of course, not present.
Zimbabwe was, interestingly, not colonized directly under the auspices of the British government, but primarily by a private individual, Cecil Rhodes, a diamond miner and co-founder of De Beers Jewellers who was Prime Minister of the Cape Colony of South Africa from 1890 to 1896. The following excerpt gives a sense of the comprehensive nature of Rhodes’s philosophy of colonialism:
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“His vision was all-encompassing and involved [quote] ‘the establishment, promotion and development of a Secret Society, the true aim and object whereof shall be for the extension of British rule throughout the world, the perfecting of a system of emigration from the United Kingdom, and of colonization by British subjects of all lands where the means of livelihood are attainable by energy, labour, and enterprise, and especially the occupation by British settlers of the entire Continent of Africa, the Holy Land, the Valley of the Euphrates, the Islands of Cyprus and Candia, the whole of South America, the Islands of the Pacific not heretofore possessed by Great Britain, the whole of the Malay Archipelago, the seaboard of China and Japan, the ultimate recovery of the United states of America as an integral part of the British Empire.’”
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There is no such thing as “kind colonialism,” but Rhodes did not even pretend to have a veneer of empathy for those whose land and livelihood he planned to overtake. Rhodes and those who worked for him deceived, exploited, and perpetrated violence on native Africans in order to claim land that was ultimately recognized by the British government as Rhodesia, named after Rhodes himself. As part of this mission, the British defeated the Ndebele in the Anglo-Ndebele War of 1893. True to the narrative mentioned earlier, the Shona were perceived as “cowards” in comparison to the Ndebele’s alleged bloodthirstiness. Thus, when Shona people rose up alongside the Ndebele in 1896, resulting in the First Chimurenga/Umvukela War, the British were caught by surprise. Mlambo includes in his book a quote from an elderly Shona man on the occasion of the uprisings: quote, “We saw you come with your wagons and horses and rifles…we said to each other ‘they have come to buy gold, or it may be to hunt elephant; they will go again’. When we saw you continue to remain in the country and were troubling us with your laws, we began to talk and to plot.” End quote. The united Shona and Ndebele uprisings were, according to some, an early example of a quote-unquote “national consciousness” across many groups. Their resistance was ultimately suppressed and British colonial control reestablished, but as Mlambo notes, these uprisings set a precedent and provided “martyrs” that would be used later to fuel anti-colonial movements such as the Second Chimurenga/Umvukela uprising of the 1960s and 70s.
This is just a portion of the context out of which the Met’s headrest emerged and was likely collected. We do not know its exact history, we do not know the precise significance of the way in which it is carved, but we do know that the time period to which the Met has attributed it is one marked by tremendous violence and injustice against the people who created it. This brings up a major issue that constantly recurs when looking at non-Western objects in Western museums, namely, whether we can truly consider the work to have been acquired by legitimate means when the power imbalance between the maker and the collector was so profound. All that the Met makes public about the provenance of this object is that it was in the collection of Drs. James J. And Gladys W. Strain “until 2001.” But to put it in that way implies to some extent that the headrest was always in their collection, that it never existed in any context other than these American doctors’ home or storage facility, even though such a thing seems extremely unlikely. As Nettleton emphasizes, many of the African headrests collected by Western institutions have limited or inaccurate documentation of provenance, but she does acknowledge a couple of instances in which there is evidence that a headrest was produced specifically for sale to the European market. A 2012 article by Nettleton explains southern African woodcarvers’ approach to creating objects for white tourists, as opposed to those for personal use, in the following way:
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“While individuals in Britain, and probably in Europe, were deeply interested in, or at least sufficiently curious about, African objects to spend their hard-earned cash on acquiring them, southern African artists were, it appears, only too happy to provide their nineteenth-century European patrons with objects which displayed the virtuosity of carving and individual, innovative design they desired…. Southern African carvers did not, in general, produce figures of human and animal form for any purposes outside the secret spaces of initiations, and this (to our knowledge) only among North Sotho, Tswana, Tsonga and Venda communities. Some figures were made for consumption by outsiders, most often in the form of staff finials representing people in ‘tribal’ dress, and sometimes animals. The products made by carvers in these communities for internal use were almost always functional in a utilitarian sense, and their carving skills were developed and honed on objects such as headrests, mortars, milk pails, meat platters and bowls, some of which were highly elaborate in design and decoration, but never more so than in the variants that were sold to Europeans…. Few scholars have shown interest in objects produced in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Africa specifically and overtly for the European market, because they do not fit their criteria for ‘authenticity’ and therefore cannot be accepted as truly African ‘masterpieces.’ Numerous woodcarvings, which were made for sale to Europeans in South Africa in the nineteenth century, and should therefore have been discarded as inauthentic by these criteria, have nevertheless and ironically, been collected as old, aesthetically rewarding, heritage items. In these instances the objects have often been accompanied by invented pedigrees intended to prove that they were made for use, and used by native and indigenous populations. The case for this claim can be made in relation to headrests with circle supports.”
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The lack of publicly available information for the specific headrest we’re looking at, however, means it’s difficult to determine whether we should be talking about this headrest in terms of a tourist object made for sale to a Euro-American audience, an object made for use in a Shona context and subsequently sold by a Shona person, or an object made for use in a Shona context that was acquired by Euro-American collectors by illegitimate means.
This is where we run into the issue of repatriation, a thorny and hotly debated topic you may have heard discussed in the media before. It’s often brought up in relation to the Parthenon Marbles, also known as the Elgin Marbles, a set of marble relief sculptures taken from the Parthenon in Greece and currently located in the British Museum. But while the Parthenon Marbles get the bulk of mainstream attention when it comes to repatriation, there are thousands of African, South American, Asian, and Indigenous objects in Western institutions for which the argument in favor of repatriation is much more clear-cut, if less easily marketable.
Let’s set aside the Met headrest as a specific object for now, and instead think about the larger body of African works of art and material culture that are currently in Western institutions. How did they get there? Were they all legitimately sold to Euro-American collectors or donated directly from native African peoples to such institutions? Such a thing would be impossible, especially given the sheer volume of African objects in Western museums. In the case of four Benin bronzes in European collections, for which arrangements are currently being made for return to Nigeria, they were stolen by British troops in 1897 when they overthrew Benin’s hereditary ruler, or oba, in a violent coup. The bronzes, as well as other treasures looted from Benin at the same time, have remained in European collections for over a century. As the acting director of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments said upon seeing Benin bronzes at the British Museum, quote, “I saw how my people were being appreciated… I was amazed at how well [the bronzes] were cared for and displayed.” End quote. At the same time, however, he said, quote, “The naked fact is that these were stolen from us…they shouldn’t be here. They didn’t arrive freely.” End quote.
This is the crux of the repatriation debate in the museum world. The benefits of keeping objects like the Benin bronzes, or a Shona headrest, in a Western museum is that they will be well cared for by trained professionals with plenty of funding to maintain them and keep them safe. In theory, since many of these museums are in major metropolitan areas, lots of tourists will be able to come and see them, to experience cultures that might otherwise be inaccessible to them. And don’t we want diverse collections? Collections that represent the whole of human creative expression and technical expertise? What if the group that created the work no longer exists, whether as a result of violent extermination or the ebb and flow of human groups over time? To whom do we “return” these works? These are the points that many Western institutions have clung to in order to keep such objects. Those in favor of repatriation, however, point to the violent and deeply unjust circumstances under which the objects were acquired as proof of the illegitimacy of Western museums’ ownership. We legally recognize the inherent unjustness of the seizure of works of art from Jewish collectors by the Nazis in World War II—why can we not recognize the same when it comes to works acquired under the auspices of colonialism? Repatriation of objects to their region of origin can be a form of reparations for past atrocities. Returning these objects makes them accessible to those to whom they are more directly relevant in terms of cultural and ethnic background or personal history, and situates them in a closer context to the one they were originally removed from.
But what about instability and lack of funding? What if the country to which the objects are returned doesn’t have the resources to care for them in the same way the Met or the British Museum would? This is a absolutely a complicating factor, one that is tied to the fact that for museums, objects are assets. They draw in visitors and scholars, they confer prestige upon the institution, and they can be merchandised through reproductions, postcards, and other gift-shop items that generate revenue to keep the institution running. For an underfunded museum in a non-Western country, the repatriation of an object could draw more visitors, thus increasing revenue and increasing the value of the museum in the eyes of both the public and of organizations, including the government, that provide funding and resources for the museum. For a well-funded Western museum, the loss of an object is potentially a loss of revenue—this is why the de-accessioning of objects by museums through auction, sale, or other means is often kept quiet. When the size of the collection decreases, the public’s reasons to go to the museum similarly decrease. The deaccessioning of non-Western objects in particular by Western museums is a double-edged sword right now, as it reduces the perceived diversity of the museum’s collection even as it earns them bonus points for being sensitive to the unfair way in which the objects were acquired and the importance of people all over the world having access to their own culture’s art and material productions.
The most sensible way to approach this issue, it seems, is on a case-by-case basis. Every object’s provenance (or lack thereof) is different, and every culture places a different value on certain objects. When it comes to the Shona headrest in the Met, it may not be a priority for repatriation, especially if it has limited provenance or there is evidence it was produced specifically for the tourist market. But even if either of these things are true, we need to acknowledge that the reason there may be limited provenance is very likely based in colonialist violence. Would such an object have to have been produced for sale to tourists if Shona peoples hadn’t been economically disadvantaged by the British seizure of their land and property? Even if not produced for the tourist trade, would this headrest have made its way into the Metropolitan Museum of Art if some European or American collector had not thought it more useful as an object of wonder than as a practical or spiritual object integral to Shona life? Colonialism affects everything it touches, whether we like it or not, and that’s important to acknowledge, even when looking at objects that don’t initially appear to be affected by colonialism.
I hope thinking about this headrest inspires you to consider the non-Western works of art in your favorite museum in greater depth, particularly in relation to how they came to be in that museum. Go check and see if the museum lists the object’s provenance on their website—if they don’t, I recommend contacting them and asking if it’s possible to make it available to the public. It may take a while, especially with privacy concerns, but it’s useful to get museums to start considering why, exactly, they are or are not transparent about object histories, and what they could stand to gain by allowing the public to see the journey an object took to get to their collection.
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Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Art History for All. You can find a transcript of this podcast, as well as a link to the image and citations, at arthistoryforall.com. Go ahead and subscribe to Art History for All wherever you like to listen to podcasts, follow us on Twitter and Instagram at arthistory4all, with the number 4, and if you really enjoyed the podcast, please consider supporting the work that Black Lives Matter is doing by checking out the resources available through blacklivesmatters.carrd.co. This podcast was produced and narrated by Allyson Healey, and the theme was composed by Bruce Healey. Credits for other music can be found in the episode description or at the end of the transcript. Main episodes premiere on the last Monday of every month, and bonus episodes will appear in your feed occasionally. Thanks so much for listening, and remember to look closely—you never know what you might see.
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Additional Music Credits:
Round Drums by Kevin MacLeod
Nomadic Dawn by Alexander Nakarada
 “Headrest | Shona Peoples | The Met,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, accessed May 14, 2020, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/318948.
 “Collections | National Museum of African Art,” accessed May 14, 2020, https://africa.si.edu/collections/view/objects/asitem/People@1581/1?t:state:flow=eac11050-ec1e-4913-9f22-fb38c86f96b9.
 “Headrest | Shona Peoples | The Met,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, accessed May 14, 2020, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/318949.
 “Headrest | Shona Peoples | The Met,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, accessed May 14, 2020, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/318949.
 Anitra Nettleton, African Dream Machines: Style, Identity and Meaning of African Headrests (NYU Press, 2007): 357.
 Nettleton, 357.
 Nettleton, 360.
 A. S. Mlambo, A History of Zimbabwe (Cambridge University Press, 2014). Ebook.
 Nettleton, 79.
 Nettleton, 79-80, 101-102.
 Anitra Nettleton, “In Pursuit of Virtuosity: Gendering ‘Master’ Pieces of Nineteenth-Century South African Indigenous Arts,” Visual Studies 27, no. 3 (November 2012): 223, https://doi.org/10.1080/1472586X.2012.717748.
 “Art of the Steal: European Museums Wrestle with Returning African Art,” Christian Science Monitor, April 30, 2019, https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Africa/2019/0430/Art-of-the-steal-European-museums-wrestle-with-returning-African-art.
 “Art of the Steal.”