Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

Monthly Update sign up
Mailing List signup

2 / Dreams and Visions

Artist / Origin Shona artist, Zimbabwe
Region: Africa
Date 19th–20th century
Material Wood
Medium: Sculpture
Dimensions H: 5 in. (12.7 cm)
Location The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Credit Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Dr. James J. Strain

expert perspective

Mary Nooter RobertsProfessor of Culture and Performance, University of California, Los Angeles

Additional Resources

“Art and Oracle: African Art and Rituals of Divination.” In Explore & Learn. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site. http://www.metmuseum.org/research/metpublications/Art_and_Oracle_African_Art_and_Rituals_of_Divination.

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

“Headrest [Zimbabwe; Shona people] (2001.759.2).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ho/10/sfs/ho_2001.759.2.htm (October 2006).

LaGamma, Alisa. Art and Oracle African Art and Rituals of Divination. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000.

Nettleton, Anitra. African Dream Machines: Style, Identity and Meaning of African Headrests. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 2008.


» Shona artist, Zimbabwe

The Shona people live in the present-day regions of Zimbabwe and southern Mozambique.

Although the Shona do not produce figurative arts, they have a rich tradition of creating embellished items for spiritual and practical use. They are especially well-known for their headrests, which are generally carved from wood and feature intricate patterns holding personal significance for their owners.

Although this headrest is a more recent example, similar pieces from southern Africa date as early as the thirteenth century. Traditionally, only mature men used such headrests. The curved surface of the headrest’s platform was designed to support the head of a sleeper lying on his side. By raising the head, the object served to keep a man’s elaborate braided hairstyle clean and in place during the night

Headrests like this one, however, were not merely utilitarian in nature. Rather, they were believed to form a connection between the living world and the spiritual realm. The Shona people say that when a person dreams, he or she is “walking” with the ancestors. The headrest was thought to act as a conduit to this world of dreams wherein the sleeper might commune with ancestors and spirits. In fact, spirit-mediums would often have headrests made for use in rituals to enable them to contact the spirit world for guidance and information.

Headrests were considered so personal that they were often buried with the deceased. In some cases, they would be passed on to a person’s heirs as a symbolic link to the family’s ancestral past.


next artwork

© Annenberg Foundation 2017. All rights reserved. Legal Policy