In the early 1970s, a migrant laborer from the Msinga district in present-day KwaZulu-Natal created several highly idiosyncratic headrests using a variety of industrial off-cuts while working somewhere in the greater Johannesburg area. Taking them home as wedding gifts or selling them to other rural migrants from the same region, he probably lived in one of the single-men's hostels erected on the city's southern border, returning home every year for short breaks over the Easter weekend and at Christmas. At least six of these headrests have survived. One is in the collection of the Wits Art Museum in Johannesburg (Fig. 1), four were found at a single homestead near the Dlenyane school on a gravel road between Pomery and Tugela Ferry in the 1990s (Figs. 2–4), and the sixth, which is now in the British Museum (Fig. 5), was purchased at the African Art Centre in Durban before being donated to the museum along with several other items obtained from the same source. Known as izigqiki (sing. isigqiki),1 headrests were used historically by both men and women as neck supports when sleeping and by married men as stools. By far the majority were acquired as wedding gifts (Fig. 6), bought by the father of the bride for either the bride or the groom, or both.2 As such, they usually formed part of the dowries women brought to their new homes, which customarily included other items such as beer pots, sleeping mats, blankets, and a large chest (ibbokisi).3 Although widely commissioned in the course of the twentieth century, the practice of purchasing headrests from skilled carvers had all but died out by the 1980s.
Some migrants are known to have produced carvings on a part-time basis during their brief annual return over Christmas to the rural homesteads of their extended families (Newman 1999: 1). But the artist who produced these examples probably assembled his headrests on site while in the employ of one of the first suppliers specializing in the processing of fabricated acrylic sheeting, such as the Nameplate Centre (now Armco Signage), which was established in about 1970 to produce durable road signs. Other companies, like Mr. Plastic, made signage and cut-to-size plastics, primarily for use in the chemical and auto-manufacturing worlds, while Plasticsworld, which supplied laser-cut and engraved plastics and letter work for display signs, was established a little later, in the course of the 1970s. The raw materials required by manufacturing companies like these were sources from firms such as Perspex South Africa (Pty) Ltd., founded in 1966 in Johannesburg (now located in KwaZulu-Natal), which made acrylic sheeting in a range of colors, thicknesses, sizes, and textures for cut-to-size industry use. Many of these companies were located to the south of Johannesburg, in industrial areas that also housed factories producing synthetic Ozite carpeting and related manufactured goods that relied on the use of plastics and aluminum.
It was here in the bleak outskirts of Johannesburg that most of the migrants from Msinga lived, confined to squalid, overcrowded, single-sex dormitories that were built to support the labor needs of the local gold mining and other industries during the apartheid era. Despite these residential conditions, interpersonal violence was surprisingly uncommon. Instead, migrants seem to have channeled their energies creatively, participating in rural art forms like isicathamiya choral performances (Erlmann 1990) and ngoma dancing (Meintjies 2017), which flourished in part because they were nurtured by a widespread sense of nostalgia for home (ekhaya). Male migrants also developed systems of support that built on established rural networks, thereby creating strong bonds of belonging and community despite the inhospitable physical environment and the grim realities of debilitating poverty. Policed by elders, these networks ensured that younger men for the most part avoided contact with outsiders, especially women (Park 2010: 62). Long annual separations from rural families also encouraged a keen interest in established art forms associated with the practice of honoring and respecting the power of the ancestors in shaping the destinies of the living. As late as the 1980s, rural carvers capitalized on this deep-seated commitment, traveling to Johannesburg (better known to migrants as Egoli—the city of gold) and neighboring urban centers like Benoni and Pretoria. There they secured sales at migrant hostels of meat plates (used to serve boiled or roasted meat on ceremonial occasions) and other items associated with the ritual slaughter and consumption of goats and cattle.4
As I indicate in my discussion of the work of this extraordinarily imaginative producer of headrests assembled from industrial off-cuts, the contexts—of labor migration, of a deep sense of nostalgia, and of an unwavering commitment to cultural continuity—are all critically important to making sense of his remarkable, indeed unique, creative energy. But, as I also argue, his work was shaped—significantly, if somewhat elusively—by the realities of rural dispossession that in the Msinga area dates back to the nineteenth century when, in 1849, the colonial government in Natal established one of its first “native” reserves in the area. Since Msinga bordered on the Zulu kingdom, this decision was taken in the hope that the reserve would serve as an effective buffer, protecting white settlers farming in the region from possible attack and theft of livestock. Ultimately, though, the powers of invention evidenced in this artist's work attest to the fact that he developed highly imaginative ways of transcending the challenging realities of daily life, in some cases producing defiantly escapist visualizations of wellbeing that warrant comparison with the intimist preoccupations of early twentieth century European artists like Bonnard and Matisse, both of whom produced intensely lyrical compositions in the face of two devastating world wars. In turn reimagining the artistic norms that shaped the works of his peers and indulging in a carefree play on words and images, he found ways to bypass the asymmetrical relations of power that defined the world he lived in by sifting through the detritus of an industrial workshop.
WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH MSINGA?
In the early 1980s, the Second Carnegie Inquiry into Poverty and Development in southern Africa culminated in a conference at which different definitions of poverty were explored, including the challenging implications for many rural communities of coping without access to life-defining resources such as adequate potable water (see Wilson 1985). Held in April 1984, the conference included a paper titled “What's the Matter with Msinga?” in which the author painted a harrowing picture of life in this arid, hilly rural periphery where access to water remains a challenge to this day. Noting that “at first glance, of course, things appear normal enough,” he pointed out immediately thereafter that “driving north from Greytown, the nature of the country changes abruptly as you begin the long descent to the Mooi River.” Here, “ordered fields and orchards, pastures and plantations”—the abundantly irrigated farms of the region's white settler community—gave way
to hills of red-brown stone where goats feed off thorns and cattle graze on little more than dust. You are in Msinga now. Brightly dressed women carry water in plastic containers; children wave and gesticulate as you pass; picturesque huts dot the hillsides. It is the sort of “traditional” scene which overseas tourists love to photograph. “Here is an Authentic piece of Africa” they say … Yet the anomalies are there if you care to look for them. Climbing out of the Mooi valley you see places where people have tried to clear the stones and plough the arid earth, and when finally you look down into the huge sweep of the Tugela valley, Msinga's heartland, you are struck by the presence of a succession of pylons which marches obliviously across the bare landscape. There is precious little electricity in Msinga, however (Robbins 1984: 2–3).
Following the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand in the 1880s, Msinga was one of the main areas from which migrants were drawn to work intermittently on Johannesburg mines (Whelan 2006: 75), leading to a culture of male absenteeism, the annual return of these migrants during December, and the birth of large numbers of babies in September. Over time, as the local population expanded and as more and more people were forced to relocate to the Msinga area, among them squatters raising cattle on the commonage attached to white settler villages and laborers evicted from neighboring white farming districts (Clegg 1981: 4–5), pressure on the already inhospitable environment intensified. As a result, by the early twentieth century increasingly deadly battles had erupted over local border disputes, ultimately leading to open warfare between men with common ancestral roots, and resulting in what Clegg has characterized as an “ideology of vengeance” (Clegg 1981). During successive skirmishes, homesteads were repeatedly burned down, forcing their inhabitants to seek refuge elsewhere. But every attack invariably gave rise to further retaliatory actions and the large-scale killing of migrant breadwinners. Speaking to Robbins in the early 1980s, a medical doctor working in the Msinga district indicated that
even those who survive the fight and return to the cities to work often feel too vulnerable to further attack and in consequence give up their jobs (and … the only income enjoyed by their families) and return to the relative safety of their tribal homes (Robbins 1984: 16).
As this suggests, for some migrants city hostels gradually became even more unsafe than their rural homesteads.
Against the background of this culture of fear and uncertainty, in which men increasingly resorted to the use of deadly weapons—some stolen, others purchased on the black market, many surreptitiously assembled in industrial workshops—the illegal cultivation of marijuana (intsangu) in virtually inaccessible valleys became one of the only means left to Msinga's communities to support themselves. Now commonly referred to euphemistically as umthunziwenkhukhu, a composite Zulu word that translates directly as “shade of the chickens,” marijuana was the crop in Msinga that, as the authors of a newspaper report dating to the late 1990s pointed out, had long been the only means open to many of local residents to clothe, feed, and educate themselves and their families (Koch and Mthembu 1997). Before marijuana was legalized in early 2018, however, regular police raids led to the spraying and burning of illegal plantations, and entire village populations would go out at night, especially when the moon was full, to hoe, weed, and trim this life-sustaining crop on which more and more people depended for their survival.
Despite both the ethos of violence as a solution to inadequate access to land and the unpredictable levels of income generated through the widespread illegal cultivation of marijuana, patrilineal kinship systems remained largely intact. As late as 2011, Cousins noted, “The homestead, umuzi, continues to play a central role in social life as a site of production, reproduction and ritual” (2011: 39). On-going commitment to upholding values many people viewed as traditional and to widely honored ideas about heritage and what Zulu-speakers refer to as “Zulu culture” or “my culture” remains widespread to this day. Deeply embedded cultural commitments like these are consistent with the evidence afforded by researchers focusing on the resilience of indigenous communities, which has shown that historic rootedness to a specific place—however threatened by forces beyond the control of the individual—and the valorization of collective identities often provide effective protection against experiences of displacement linked to the impact of colonialism and the attendant loss of personal and communal autonomy (see, e.g., Kirmayer et. al. 2011).
REIMAG(IN)ING THE PAST
On closer inspection, the six Msinga headrests fashioned from industrial off-cuts are more conventional than they might appear at first sight. Clearly mimicking the basic design of some of the monoxylic carved examples (Fig. 7) produced in this region in the course of the twentieth century, it would not be far fetched to describe them, at least in this regard, as self-consciously traditional. Headrests like these, particularly from the area south of Pomeroy, were typically constructed with a blocklike base, either solid or pierced, supporting a cross-bar (Newman 1999: 8). Jolles collected similarly styled headrests in a small adjoining region either side of the Umzinyathi (Buffalo) river around its confluence with the Umngeni, which he described as “brick shaped with arms” and recessed panels (Jolles 2001: 112). Like several examples from the Msinga region, some of these also had inscriptions scratched onto the face of the headrest, while in others words or letters and various decorative elements were emblazoned through the use of pokerwork, a technique that was employed in other carving types, such as the geometric designs commonly found on mat racks (Klopper 2018). The Newman Collection has further examples with boldly inscribed surnames and dates, such as “From Nongila 66,” presumably a reference to the family of the bride that gifted the headrest to her future husband. One, attributed to a carver by the name of Mdingi Mathaba, includes the names of the bride and groom, Te(m)bile Ndlovu and Sigenu Ngamu (Newman 1999: 8). This headrest also appears to make additional allusions to the praise names of the bridal couple. A further example has the letters “TPSA” inscribed on one of its panels, probably a reference to the groom's place of work, i.e. Transvaal, Pretoria, South Africa. The use of letters associated with number plates—TJ for Johannesburg and TP for Pretoria—was fairly common, especially in beadwork (Fig. 8), affording a shorthand solution to signaling connection to a larger world beyond the confines of rural life. It is clear from other Msinga headrests that some carvers also used cast metal dyes to stamp letters or words onto the surface of their blocklike supports, but neither Newman nor Jolles acquired headrests in which the carvers used industrial materials to alter or enhance their designs. Nor are there any in the large collection assembled by Paul Mikula, housed in the Phansi Museum in Durban.5
The industrial scraps used to produce the six assembled headrests include translucent and opaque Perspex off-cuts, Perspex lettering, industrial carpeting, pieces of plywood into which numbers and letters have been cut with the aid a jig, recycled scraps of aluminum, industrial tacks, and, in some cases, newspaper cuttings mounted behind translucent pieces of Perspex (Fig. 9). Those fashioned entirely from Perspex are characterized by bold contrasts of color, while others, cut from plywood, incorporate metal details hammered onto the surface of the headrests (Fig. 5). Importantly, precedents for the use of some of these materials, such as Bakelite and Perspex, can be found in other art forms associated with Zulu-speakers from the Msinga region of present-day KwaZulu-Natal, particularly the production of earplugs. Examples decorated with multicolored geometric Bakelite inlays were produced as early as the 1930s. Bought in Johannesburg by migrants from the Msinga district as gifts for their wives, they often included sun and moon motifs inspired by the commercial packaging for Sunbeam floor polish and Sunlight soap. Following the advent around 1950 of vinyl asbestos “Marley” floor tiles, the design of these earplugs became more intricate, sometimes incorporating letters from the alphabet. Once thicker, translucent Perspex began to be used in the 1960s, the difficulty of working with this comparatively brittle material led to the development of boldly colored but simpler designs. Earplugs like these, which frequently incorporated brass or chrome studs (Jolles 1997: 53), were initially marketed to migrants working in urban areas, but they became so popular that carvers located permanently in the Msinga area, such as Ezron Mvelase, also started making them, selling to local customers living in the region (Jolles 1997: 94).
By the mid-twentieth century, the use of lettering as decorative motifs had also become fairly common in other art forms, often featuring prominently on clay pots. But it was especially in the production of beadwork that words, phrases, even proverbs were incorporated, particularly among Zulu-speaking communities living close to large urban centers. Here, access to schooling was comparatively widespread, partly because children were able to attend classes near to home, unlike those living in outlying communities such as Msinga, where most had to travel long distances on foot to reach over-crowded and under-resourced schools. In the Valley of a Thousand Hills between Durban and Pietermaritzburg, where local Zulu-speakers engaged in close and sustained contact with settler communities from as early as the mid-nineteenth century, there was a gradual, but complex, shift from oral to textual modes of communication. Over time, this led to the production of beadwork by women from the Nyuswa community that incorporates beaded proverbs on izinjokholo, tie-like necklaces that are similar in style to examples dating to the nineteenth century, but with verbal inscriptions that were sometimes so long that they trailed on the ground (Fig. 10). Fashioned from plastic beads that first became widely available in the 1960s, these beaded proverbs attest to the ongoing importance in the twentieth century of allegorical speech practices that hark back to the oral traditions of presettler communities.
Early on, when mid-nineteenth century Christian missionaries in Natal first tried to codify isiZulu with a view to translating the Bible to secure converts, they drew attention to the extent to which Zulu-speakers used allegorical sayings in praise poetry and other oral traditions (see, e.g., Grout 1859). To this day, proverbs are still used in lawsuits to minimize friction, to comment in general on people and the world, to commend hospitality and bravery, to caution against adversity, and to reflect on the changing fortunes of life. But the examples of proverbial utterances that were documented in the 1970s and 1980s in studio photographs taken in Durban and Pietermaritzburg seem invariably to have focused on issues related to courtship and love, in some cases reflecting aspiration, or admonition, but also yearning and disappointment. A collection of photographs of this kind, now in the Killie Campbell Museum in Durban, affords invaluable insights into this tradition. Taken in Pietermaritzburg by Singuram Jeevaruthnan Moodly, otherwise known as Kitty (1922–1987), they record people who arrived from the Valley of a Thousand Hills with their beaded and other finery packed into suitcases, dressing up after they arrived at the studio for photographs that document their preoccupation with losing or finding and securing appropriate life partners. Some of these beaded ties are openly confessional, such as Ungazihluphingami bhungu (“Don't worry about me, man”) which draws attention to the experience of rejection (Fig. 11) after the subject appears to have flirted with a woman who jilted him, as signaled by the reference to “bhungu”—a derogatory term used by young women after thwarting the advances of men who would otherwise be referred respectfully as “ndoda.” Others suggest yearning and confusion in trying to negotiate the courtship game, or refusal to be drawn into it, such as “I'm quiet but I have knowledge” (Fig. 12). Here and elsewhere, self-performance is used to voice sentiments the sitters felt compelled to record and display. Visual-cum-verbal records of efforts to negotiate complex challenges related to courtship and marriage, the heartfelt honesty of the beaded inscriptions attest to the importance young men and women ascribed to the institution of marriage. In one example, included in a 2013 exhibition curated by Steven Dubin—who pointed out that “All these people desired a keepsake to mark a particular moment in their lives, commemorate a special occasion, or chronicle a relationship” (Dubin 2013: 8)—a man clasps his wife's hand in what could be described as a “pregnancy” rather than wedding photograph, given the long cloth (isidiya) covering her breasts and her noticeably protruding abdomen.6 Traditionally worn by recently married women expecting their first child, the isidiya signals the parents' pride in the impending birth of their child. Although Dubin seems not to have realized that the lettering on the wife's beaded necklace was scripted, when translated directly the proverb proclaims: “Talk, spit, and decide what you are trying to do,” an oblique reference to witchcraft, possibly alluding to difficulties in the woman's efforts to conceive a child.7
Examples like these afford insights into the burgeoning twentieth century interest in experimenting with new materials and new modes of expression that are likely to have informed and shaped the aesthetic choices of the Msinga headrest assembler, as well as some of his social concerns and personal values. But it was his conspicuous reliance on the use of large industrial off-cuts and his entirely novel practice of incorporating newspaper cuttings into some of his works that distinguishes his output from that of fellow migrants who produced earplugs and from the female arts of pottery and beadwork whose makers for the most part were forced to remain in rural areas.
Several researchers have drawn attention to the preoccupation with notions of modernity—isimodeni—in the mid- to late-twentieth century arts of various Zulu-speaking communities, among them Jolles (1993), Klopper (2011) and Gatfield (2014). As Jolles notes, in the beadwork from the Msinga area, this affected both the design of beadwork panels and the choice of bead colors (Jolles 1993: 47). Observations like these regarding principles of design and use of color are also relevant to a consideration of the production of the Msinga headrest assembler, but his works clearly go beyond an interest in embracing the idea of isimodeni, attesting instead to a highly idiosyncratic interpretation of a long-established art form. On the one hand celebrating and thereby honoring some of the values and concepts associated with the use of headrests in Msinga and in other Zulu-speaking communities, on the other he completely reimagined this tradition through the adoption of novel materials and a playful allusions to both customary practices and cosmopolitan values.
ESTER, “THE BOY FRIEND,” AND THE ANCESTORS
Since the availability of the industrial off-cuts used in the construction of the Msinga headrest assembler's inventions was presumably dictated by what was discarded from the acrylics supply workshop where he seems to have been employed, it might seem logical to assume that there was an element of chance in his use of materials. But far from being random, it is clear from the example in the Wits Art Museum (Fig. 1) that he not only individualized the iconographies of his headrests, but also made carefully considered allusions to some of the cultural concerns that underpinned the production of this art form by his peers. In this particular case, for example, the word “SNUFF” emblazoned on one side of the headrest was obviously added in reference to the ancestors. As Anitra Nettleton and others have noted, snuff was—in fact, still is—believed to afford a means for the living to communicate with the dead (Nettleton 2003: 78), which they do in a variety of ways: sometimes by speaking to cattle associated with the ancestors (Berglund 1976), at others through dreams (Nettleton 1990) when sleeping on their headrests and, in the past, by rubbing snuff onto these wooden “pillows.” Historically, some headrests included tobacco or snuffboxes in their designs (see, e.g., Nettleton 2007: 369).
Allusions like these are revisited in the headrest in the British Museum (Fig. 5) which appears, at first sight, to have an entirely arbitrary composition—a series of randomly chosen plywood, plastic, and aluminum off-cuts—with newspaper cuttings of the words “Sugar” and “Sunlight” attached at either side under strips of translucent red Perspex. On closer inspection, though, this headrest is clearly a simulacrum of a radio, complete with dials, speakers and a coil, the latter implied by the aluminum strips at the top that suggest the possibility of tuning the radio to receive sound from a station of one's own choice. Although it is not immediately obvious what the playful reference to a radio was intended to signal, it seems likely that when the artist constructed this headrest he had in mind the idea of communication, of establishing some kind of connection, most probably between the living and the dead. If so, the radio was intended to serve as a contemporary metaphor for snuff. Several other points of connection may also be relevant to an understanding of this work, most obvious among these the fact that the status of radios and other consumer items like cars and telephones were regarded in many African communities as symbols of worldly aspiration and cosmopolitan sophistication. For impoverished migrants and their families, access to these goods ultimately depended on appeasing the ancestors by singing their praises, ritually slaughtering animals in their honor, or rubbing snuff on headrests.
Importantly, simulacra like the one of the radio in the British Museum headrest clearly fall into the first of Baudrillard's (1984) four stages of simulation. In other words, the Msinga headrest assembler copied rather than perverted reality. And although his headrests were assembled from industrial off-cuts, they are definitely not assemblages as defined by Seitz (1961), who claimed the status of anti-art for works that “entirely or in part” are put together from “natural or manufactured materials, objects, or fragments not intended as art materials” (Kelly 2008: 24). Unlike artists such as Duchamp, who intentionally defied or obliterated accepted categories of art, these headrests ultimately bear comparison with the gentler project of Cubism, especially its play on words and on the limits of illusionism and its use of collage, which served to blur the distinction between art and reality. The lighthearted, often witty concerns of this earlier Cubist project celebrated the use of texture, shapes, words, and compositions to create a rich constellation of meanings. Much like the collages of Braque and Picasso, the assembled Msinga headrests are carefully composed, at once affirming and challenging the two-dimensional plane. As such they partake in what Clement Greenberg referred to as an “oscillation between surface and depth so as to encompass fictive space in front of the surface as well as behind it” (Greenberg 1961: 77).
The compositions of most of the assembled Msinga headrests are frontal, with undecorated Perspex panels added to the reverse side. But in the example that was presumably made for a woman called Ester, whose name is inscribed in bold red letters on the one side (Fig. 2), the artist added the inscription “c'est“ (Fig. 13) on the other. In doing so he not only referenced the first three letters of Ester's name but suggested, simultaneously, through an allusion to the French appellation c'est—“it is”—that this was, of course, Ester's headrest. The play on Ester's name was probably also intended as a tantalizing invocation of distant worlds beyond the experience of most Zulu-speaking migrants and their rural families. But at least some of these inhabitants of rural Msinga would have been familiar with stories of men and women who, against all odds, managed to travel to Europe, usually on visas that entitled them to study for tertiary qualifications, in the process learning new languages and forging new networks that eventually catapulted them into careers that completely defied the expectations of their impoverished, often illiterate relatives. In contrast to most people from his community, the headrest assembler evidently also had a sophisticated command of English, developing a passing knowledge of French along the way, possibly while working on signage for theaters and movie houses, which were some of the earliest adopters of Perspex lettering to advertise shows and performances.
The Msinga artist's calculated concerns to draw attention to situations, places, people, and, in some cases, even other artifacts, thereby concretizing but also reframing the symbolic functions ascribed to headrests by rural Zulu-speaking traditionalists, is probably most apparent in the astonishingly rich iconography of a headrest that includes selected newspaper cuttings secured behind transparent sections of Perspex: a coastal landscape scene (Fig. 14), a panoramic view of Durban's beachfront (Fig. 15), and a photograph from the Tonight section of the Star (Figs. 4, 16), Johannesburg's leading daily newspaper, dated December 6, 1971. On closer inspection this photograph at the center of the headrest has, on the bottom left, a part caption that reads “… as Polly Browne and Christopher Gable as Tony with the I-Could-Be-Happy-With-You fantasy number from The Boy Friend“ and, on the right, the word “Entertainment.” A still from The Boy Friend— which began life in 1954 as a small-scale pastiche of British musical comedies from the 1920s, but which was turned into a movie that reached the box office in December 1971—the missing section of the caption on the left reads: “Twiggy as Polly Browne ….” Set in the carefree world of the French Riviera in the Roaring Twenties, the lyrics for The Boy Friend's I-could-be-happy-with-you song includes the lines: “I don't claim that I am psychic/But one look at you and I kick/Away every scruple/I learnt as a pupil.” This bold assertion is followed by a more cautious effort to court the affections of Polly Browne, before the “boy friend” concludes with the endearingly hopeful assertion: “I could be happy with you/If you could be happy with me.”
Viewed in conjunction with the two scenes on either side of the I-could-be-happy-with-you image—of Durban's beachfront hotels, which to this day are a destination of choice for honeymooning couples, and a subtropical beach scene alluding to the idea of moneyed leisure—the headrest presumably was produced as an aspirational evocation of the potential joys of married life in a world blessed by access to resources beyond the wildest dreams of rural migrants, many of whom sought employment in urban areas in the hope, primarily, of saving adequate funds to make the bridewealth payments (ilobolo) required by prospective in-laws.
The name of the Msinga headrest assembler appears not to have been recorded. More than likely, his works were repeatedly overlooked, possibly even discarded as untraditional, by field collectors who combed through much of KwaZulu-Natal in the course of the 1980s and early 1990s. To them, his headrests would probably have seemed totally out of place, given the interest of dealers and collectors in finding “authentic” monoxylic carvings that affirmed long-held assumptions regarding African artistic traditions. It is, in fact, unlikely that the four headrests from a homestead near the Dlenyane School would have survived, or come to light, had it not been for the foresight of art dealers Steve and Juliette De Combes, who found them by chance in course of the 1990s while searching for more conventional artifacts. Yet, judging from his remarkable capacity for invention, this headrest artist might well have been prolific, possibly taking great delight in producing witty visual compositions that engaged some of the cultural concerns he shared with his Zulu patrons.
Sadly, it is no longer possible to establish why he included certain details in his compositions, such as the word “Sunlight” (Fig. 5), which he added as vertical strips on the sides of the headrest now in the British Museum. Cut from newspaper advertisements for the Sunlight brand of soaps and cleaning agents that are still favored to this day in rural Msinga (Fig. 17),8 these strips might or might not have been intended to signal the importance of cleanliness when engaging the ancestors. Either way, additions like these were clearly chosen with great care, as was the placement of words such as “Entertainment” at the bottom righthand corner of the scene from The Boy Friend in another headrest (Fig. 9). Other elusive references include the word “KLIP” on the reverse side of the “SNUFF” headrest (Fig. 1) in the Wits Museum Art. This addition might point to one of several concerns: since klip is the Afrikaans word for stone or rock, it could have been intended as an allusion to the stone cairns traditionalists use to mark the graves of their ancestors; but it is also possible that it was added in reference to Kliptown, one of the oldest black settlements established in the greater Johannesburg area in 1891 and, most famously, the site in 1955 where the African National Congress adopted the Freedom Charter, the statement of core principles that informed the ANC's subsequent struggle against the apartheid state. More than likely, though, its primary function was to draw attention to the artist's home territory in the Msinga region, presumably the Klip River Location in the uThukela District Municipality, not far from the homestead in which four of his headrests were found. Testing the validity of speculative suggestions like these may no longer be possible unless, unexpectedly, further examples of his work come to light.
In the Msinga area, apprentice carvers often copied the designs of their teachers, and some carvers, such as Mashayiduma Dladla of Entanyane, Muden (Newman 1999: 1), developed reputations for producing exceptionally skillful headrests that fetched comparatively high prices. Carvers like these usually relied on the use of one or two patterns, which they varied slightly in the production of their headrests, selling mainly to local patrons. Others, like Mduka Ngubane, of Mvundlweni, from Keate's Drift, who was still active in the 1980s, sold beyond the Tugela Ferry region, probably relying on the patronage of Msinga residents who were displaced to the north following growing population pressure exacerbated by the forced removal of farm laborers from settler farms in the neighboring Weenen district in the late 1960s. In contrast to these named carvers, the headrest assembler probably worked in isolation in an industrial workshop in Johannesburg. But far from stunting his creativity, this afforded him access to a broader canvas of ideas and materials, fueling his imagination and sustaining his work.
Perhaps, above all, the headrests he assembled attest to his remarkable capacity to reimagine and thereby reinvent a long-established tradition far from home, ekhaya, the refrain commonly invoked by migrant workers yearning to return to the rural environments in which they were raised. Although consistently attentive to both the form of Msinga-style headrests and the values embedded in them, his works ultimately defy the artistic norms commonly accepted by his peers. In many respects deeply informed by the contexts of rural dispossession and apartheid era oppression that must have shaped his life, they nevertheless ignored the day-to-day realities of grinding poverty and racial discrimination to take pleasure in a carefree play on words and images. It is very telling in this regard that on the flip side of the Star newspaper cutting about The Boy Friend on the headrest in Figure 4, an article details the unhappiness of a trader from Soweto, the sprawling black city (so-called township) to the south west of Johannesburg.9 Advocating the development of better shopping opportunities for segregated township dwellers, this trader noted that people from Soweto were forced to travel long distances to Johannesburg to purchase foodstuffs, especially perishables, because of the lack of appropriate facilities, including access to electricity, in these under-resourced neighborhoods (Fig. 18). In the face of these pressing challenges, The Boy Friend's celebration of youthful love and happiness afforded an opportunity to escape into a joyous world of emotional optimism.
The title of my article comes from the lyrics to “I Could Be Happy with You” in The Boy Friend, the 1954 musical by Sandy Wilson that was released as a feature film directed by Ken Russell in 1971.
Krige (1936: 398) claimed that a headrest with legs was referred to as an umcamelo (pl. imicamelo), and that one consisting “merely of a wooden block without legs” was known as an isigqiki. This distinction has since fallen away in favor of the use of isigqiki (pl. izigqiki) for all headrest types.
Some women only adopted the headdresses associated with married women after settling into their new homes. In cases like these, women sometimes bought their own headrests.
Historically, only couples who followed all aspects of the wedding ceremony, including the “sewing on” (ukuthunga isicholo) of the married woman's headdress (isicholo), received headrests. For an in-depth consideration of the intricacies involved in Zulu marriage ceremonies, see Krige (1936: 120–58). Recent modifications in this often drawn-out process and in the practice of bridewealth payments (ilobolo), vary substantially from one region to another.
During fieldwork excursions to the Nongoma and Nkandla areas in the mid-1980s, I interviewed carvers who traveled regularly to Johannesburg to sell their wares. One of these carvers found it excruciatingly funny that it was easier to sell meat plates in urban centers than back home, pointing to the unnecessary additional cost of transporting wooden meat plates and spoons back and forth.
The collector, Paul Mikula, is the managing trustee of the Phansi Museum, a nonprofit organization that was established in 2000.
Dubin discussed images like these in the article he wrote on Moodley's studio for African Arts in 2014.
I am immensely grateful to my niece, Vajradhara, and some of my other fluent Zulu-speaking relatives for their repeated efforts to assist with translations into English, and for their insights into customary practices that are followed to this day, even among people living in urban communities.
In a 2016 survey, Sunlight Laundry Soap was deemed the most iconic brand in South Africa, with Coca Cola following in second place (BusinessTech 2016).
Soweto is the acronym for South Western Townships.