African Dream Machines: Style, Identity and Meaning of African Headrests

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Wits University Press, 2007 - Architecture - 471 pages
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"This is a stimulating book, which covers much new material Scholarship on sub-Saharan Africa is very thinly theorized. Few scholars seem to have the range to make connections with art practice elsewhere and generally offer interpretations which struggle to get beyond ethnographic documentation. Few monographs engage with the wider debates. This book is an exception."
--John Mack, Professor, University of East Anglia (UK)

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 1975-1976, 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.

Anitra Nettleton is a professor in the Wits School of Arts, Johannesburg (South Africa). This manuscript was awarded the University of the Witwatersrand Research Committee Publication Award in 2006.

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Headrests and Art
A Matter of Style or Why Style Matters 23
Methodology Position and Limitations 59

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About the author (2007)

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

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