Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Can a Headrest Identify Your Sleeping Partner?

The Maurer headrest collection which the gallery is now offering was assembled by Evan Maurer with great care over almost four decades. Evan's criteria for acquisition was aesthetic merit, sculptural quality, rarity, and finally condition. His discerning eye was honed by more than fifty years in the arts. Concentrating on the fine arts and art history, Maurer earned his B. A. at Amherst College in 1966, his M.A. at the University of Minnesota in 1968, and his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania in 1974.  His ties to The Minneapolis Institute of Arts date to 1967 when he served as a curatorial intern and then in 1971 when he became assistant to the director and curator.  In 1973, he served as curator of African, Oceanic and Modern Art at the Institute and then moved to the Art Institute of Chicago, where we was curator of the Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas and an assistant professor for eight years at the School of the Art Institute.
Maurer was director of the University of Michigan Museum of Art in Ann Arbor from 1981 until he rejoined The Minneapolis Institute of Arts in 1988 as director.  While at Michigan, he became a tenured professor of art history and also chaired the Graduate Program in Museum Practice.
Headrests have been considered by many to be utilitarian or ethnographic, as some art collectors marginalize them with  this descriptive category. But markets do mature and come to understand as Marc Ginzberg and Bill Dewey have taught us that not all great works are figurative.  I have selected below 3 headrests all from the southern regions of Africa that are to some degree related by geographical style and function. To the African, this small object can become imbued with the spirit of the owner. They can be prestige items and they can be objects through which an ancestor can be contacted.  They certainly indicated status of the owner and as such were a reflection of  wealth, power, and influence. Functionally they did help keep the coiffure off the ground during sleep.

This first headrest was used by the Tsonga, who are located primarily in Zimbabwe and Mozambique to the northeast of the Zulu and Shona.  On many Tsonga headrests there are lugs suspended from either end of the horizontal element of the headrest. In most cases this is diagnostic for a Tsonga identification. Some believe that the headrest is an abstract female form where these elements represent earrings. "A headrest that has been owned and used by a particular ancestor has a value beyond anything indicated by its physical appearance. In other cases, as the headrest was consistently used and handled, it would become personalized to such a degree that upon the owner's death, he would be buried along with the headrest and other personal items. Headrests have also been described as mhamba, a Tsonga term used to describe any object, act, or even person that is used to establish a bond between the gods and people. For example, the headrest is conceived to serve as a communicating vehicle through which to contact ancestors and spirits in dreams." Metropolitan Museum website. On November 18, 2000 Sothebys sold a Shona headrest  that I would say is slightly superior to this example for  $32,375. In 2006  Gary Van Wyck of Axis gallery estimated the value of this headrest to be  $18,000 to $25,000. We are asking $12,500.
The Shona are located slightly to the west and south of the Tsonga and are also located in Zimbawqe and Mozambique as well as South Africa.  Rand tribal Art developed the following data on the Shona headrests.. "Among the Shona headrests that have survived intact are some with intensely personal designs. It is thought that these elaborately carved and embellished pieces were used only by adult men, and that each of them may have been custom-made for its individual owner. The style of headrest shown here has come to be regarded as typically Shona. There seems to be a consensus that headrests of this type have an essentially female quality, whether through the triangular notch on the base (which may refer to female genitals), or through the designs on the support (called nyora, the same name used for the scarification that Shona women used to have on their torsos). These headrests often feature different designs on the front and back of their supports, possibly referring to the front and back of a female body. Such a headrest might have been used by a man in the past by placing it outside the dwelling of one of his wives to indicate that he intended to sleep with her that night. Common on the oval or circular elements of the support are concentric circle motifs, which, in some examples are replaced by three-dimensional breast forms, but which may well refer to the ends of the conus shell (ndoro), worn as signs of status by adult Shona men and women. Because of the intensely personal character of a headrest, it is therefore not surprising that they were usually buried with their owners, to support their heads in death as they had in sleep, but they might also be passed onto their heirs after their owners died and may have become part of a collection of ancestral relics."
Klopper, 1986) as quoted in Sleeping beauties, Dewey, 1993, p. 82. This particular example is very finely carved with metal wire decorations. In 2006 Gary Van Wyck of Axis Gallery estimated the value at $25,000 to $30,000 of this Zulu headrest.  We are asking  $20,000 for this object.
We can see that the Shona, Zulu, and Tsonga all had a tradition of burying some headrests with their original owners. Through use, burying, normal wear and tear and museum acquisitions, there are fewer and fewer quality headrests on the market.  The Joss and Maurer collections are already unique in their focus and quality.

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