Sleeping Beauties: Headrests from the Fowler Museum at UCLA

Sleeping Beauties: Headrests from the Fowler Museum at UCLA

Terminal 2

June 2012 - January 2013

Sleeping Beauties: Headrests from the Fowler Museum at UCLA

In many parts of central, western, and southern Africa, headrests were carved by their owners; while others were exquisitely crafted by professional carvers. These headrests often supported elaborate coiffures that were far too complex and time consuming to restyle on a daily basis. Hair was intricately braided or embellished with clay, beads, and other decorative materials. Small, wooden supports protected these styles during sleep, helping to preserve a hairstyle for weeks or even months at a time. Africans, however, were not the only ones to use headrests in order to preserve their hairstyles. During the Edo and Meiji periods (1603–1912) in Japan, hundreds of different hairstyles existed, especially among courtesans. A woman placed the support—a soft pillow atop a trapezoidal wooden base—under her neck so that the complex hair form that framed her face would remain intact. People all over the world spend nearly one-third of their lives sleeping, employing some type of pillow when resting. From ancient periods to modern times, humans have made rigid pillows from a wide variety of materials, including stone, clay, wood, and bamboo. Headrests were once a staple of domestic furniture, not only in many parts of Africa, but also in Asia and Oceania. Among the oldest known headrests are those from ancient Egypt. In life and the afterlife, ancient Egyptians slept with their heads on pillows of wood or alabaster. Eight headrests were found in the famous Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun's tomb. Although the earliest known headrests were found in Egypt, the Egyptians were not necessarily the first to have used them on the African continent. The dry, tomb climate helped preserve them; whereas, in damper regions south of the Sahara, wooden headrests would have rotted or succumbed to termites.

Headrests served other purposes besides elevating the head and protecting hairstyles. They were often important indicators of one's status. In Africa and Oceania, headrests also acted as conduits to the ancestors where they were employed to invite spirits into dreams. In China, they served as funeral offerings. In fact, so many headrests were discovered in Chinese burial grounds that scholars once believed they were used solely for this purpose.

Within the constraints of their size and shape, these intimate objects reflect the aesthetics of their respective cultures and function in symbolic as well as utilitarian ways. This exhibition features African, East Asian, and Oceanic headrests from the collections of the Fowler Museum at UCLA—from Central African and Melanesian figurative, wooden headrests to Chinese delicately- glazed, porcelain and Japanese rattan-woven pillows.

Sleeping Beauties: Headrests from the Fowler Museum is based upon an exhibition that originated at the Fowler Museum. The exhibition's label text has been adapted by SFO Museum.

©2012 by San Francisco Airport Commission. All rights reserved.