Heads and Tales: Adornments from Africa

December 9, 1999-October 1, 2001

face mask
Face mask with cloth hood Bushoong carver and tailor, Kuba Group, Democratic Republic of Congo. PM 17-41-51/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 exhibition using sculpture, masks, artifacts, jewelry, and photographs. What do these objects convey about local beliefs and cultural practices? How do they delight or frighten onlookers? Teach the young or guide the diviner?

Each section of this exhibition 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. 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, induce feelings of changes inside the head. This exhibition--from official insignia to items of personal pride--dramatically illustrates the importance of the human head as a central motif in the artistic repertory of the West and Central Africa people.

The objects on display are drawn from the collections of Harvard's Peabody Museum. From the late nineteenth century 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 understanding of the objects by placing them in a real life context.

This exhibition was enhanced with financial contributions from Genevieve McMillan and Sarah Hrdy.

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