Among the pastoralist people of the Pokot culture, neck rests tend to be a practical tool, and the simple form of this neck rest – formed from three serendipitously positioned branches – reflects its practical nature. After initiation into adulthood, Pokot men begin wearing distinctive and individualized mud-pack hairstyles that change and develop throughout their lives; the delicate nature of the dried and painted mud makes the use of a neck rest crucial to the survival of the hair pack from day to day. Pokot women, meanwhile, wear relatively simple hairstyles, even shaving their heads, and they wear beaded forehead ornaments rather than elaborate hair arrangements. Women’s neck rests, therefore, are mainly used for comfort while sleeping.
The simple difference between head rests and neck rests is that a head rest cradles the head and thereby straightens the neck to create a comfortable sleeping position, while a neck rest performs the same function by cradling the neck. Both head and neck rests keep the face and hair from getting dirty, and they help to preserve the expensive and elaborate hairstyles that serve as important symbols of high status in many African cultures. Additionally, neck and head rests also hold spiritual symbolism, as they are believed to link the owner to the ground, and in some societies they are believed to function as “antennae” to the ancestors, serving as a channel by which ancestors transferred dreams to the owner.
This object is clearly identifiable as a head rest rather than a neck rest because of its curving wide, flat, oval top, which would be a comfortable surface for a head, but not for a neck. The Kambata make head rests in a style common to the many cultures of Ethiopia, with three flattened supporting columns, incised and carved surfaces, and flattened oval projections emerging from the tops of the outer columns. This head rest appears to have suffered some damage, however, as one of the oval projects is missing and the area has been roughly refinished.
Neck rests in the Luba culture are objects that display high status and serve as cherished belongings for the Luba elite. Elaborate hairstyles are popular among the Luba, reflecting the wearer’s age, gender, and status, and some hairstyles take up to 50 hours to construct. Likewise, the Luba use neck rests, which protect and preserve these intricate styles and help them to last up to three months. When sculpted female figures support the neck rest, these figures are politically symbolic, as the Luba are a matrilineal culture – the family name and inheritance come through the mother’s side of the family, and the figures reinforce the legitimacy of that person’s inherited status.