Heads and Tales: Adornments from Africa

Painted Face Mask
Painted face mask with cloth hood, D.R. of Congo. PM 17-41-50/B1908

In all human societies, the head conveys social and cultural information about age and gender. In many African societies, adornments to the head also signal wealth, ethnicity, spiritual status, and official position. Because of the expressive power of the head, complex messages can be delivered by means of images rather than words.

The role of the tale-telling head in sub-Saharan Africa is considered in this exhibit using sculptures, masks, artifacts, jewelry, and photographs. What do these objects convey about local beliefs and cultural practices? How do they delight or frighten onlookers? Trigger memory? Teach the young or guide the diviner?

Each section of this exhibit highlights the ways people from many different African countries and communities create heads that communicate without words. By means of hairstyle, disguise, or reshaping the head, significant information is imparted to the onlooker. Additions to the head—hats, hair ornaments, and headdresses —relay messages of personal identity and social status. The artifacts of initiation and divination ceremonies, including musical instruments, cups, and spoons, introduce substances and experiences that produce powerful changes inside the head. Necklaces and ear ornaments define and protect the boundaries of the head. Through-out this exhibit, sculptures—from official insignia to items of personal pride—dramatically illustrate the importance of the human head as a central motif in the carver’s repertoire.

The objects on display are drawn from the collections of the Peabody Museum. From the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, the Peabody Museum acquired these objects from sponsored expeditions and as gifts or purchases from missionaries, scholars, and collectors. For many objects, it is only through recent research that we are able to assign the names of the original owners, and only rarely do we find the names of the individual artists or artisans.

Many photographs accompany the exhibit and serve as “visual quotes” extending our under-standing of the objects by placing them in a social context.

The original exhibit was curated by Monni Adams and was made possible by the generous support of Genevieve McMillan and Daniel and Sarah Hardy.