Objects Depicting Heads

Human figure, Africa. The 'nkisi' is a type of power object in Central African sculpture. The mirror eyes show that the nkisi can see into the invisible realm and attract spirit forces, while the binding imprisons any harmful forces. PM 89-3-50/51245
Palm-wine drinking cup, D.R. of Congo. Carved wooden cups were reserved for use by men. On this cup, the image of a human head recurs within the lines of a well-known Bushoong design called “the ruler’s house.” PM 17-41-50/B1875
Large black ladle, Southern Dan, Liberia. A woman receives this kind of ladle and an honorary title in appreciation of her hospitality for preparing ritual meals on important occasions. PM 29-76-50/H1086
Chief's chair supported by figures, Senufo carver, Ivory Coast. This chair was used to emphasize the chef's power and height over those seated below the chief. PM 60-50-50/10422
Ceremonial whisk with human figure, Cameroon. Ceremonial items such as this fly whisk were identifying insignia for court families and officials. PM 30-2-50/B4945
Ceremonial axe, Luba carver, D.R. of Congo. These small axes were carried on the shoulder as tokens of authority. The carved woman's head evokes the guardian spirit of Luba leaders. PM 17-41-50/B1571

The principal image in African sculpture is the human head, miniaturized or magnified, with or without a body. When questioned about the prominence of the head in figural work, an African man replied, “Well, sir, when you encounter someone you know or you do not know, do you look at his feet or at his head?” 

The head, which reveals intentions, temperament, and desires, is chosen for its expressive power to address and capture the attention of beings—human or spirit. The sculptures exhibited here offer a sampling of objects that employ this motif.