African Dream Machines Cover

African Dream Machines

Style, Identity And Meaning Of African Headrests

488 pages

January, 2007

ISBN: 9781868144587



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Anitra Nettleton is a professor at the Wits School of Arts, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

 African headrests are treated as art objects in this historical study
African Dream Machines takes African headrests out of the category of functional objects and into the more rarefied category of "art" objects. Styles in African headrests are usually defined in terms of Western art and archaeological discourses, but this book interrogates these definitions and demonstrates the shortcomings of defining a single formal style model as exclusive to a single ethnic group. This book has been in the making for fifteen years, starting with research on the traditional woodcarving of the Shona-and Venda-speaking peoples of Zimbabwe and South Africa. Among the artifacts made by South African peoples, headrests were the best known and during a year spent in Europe in 1975 and 1976, Anitra Nettleton discovered museum stores full of unacknowledged masterpieces made by speakers of numerous Southern African languages. A Council Fellowship from the University of the Witwatersrand in 1990 enabled the writer to develop an archive in the form of notes, photographs, and sketches of each and every headrest she encountered. Many examples from South African collections were added from the early 1990s onwards, expanding the field vastly. Nettelton executed drawings of each and every headrest encountered, and they became a major part of the project in their own right. African Dream Machines questions the assumed one-to-one relationship between formal styles and ethnic identities or classifications. Historical factors are used to demonstrate that "authenticity," in the form sought by collectors of antique African art, is largely a construct.